Why Are We Testing Royals Before Nurses? | Opinion

The coronavirus has now very much arrived in a certain layer of British society. On Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced via a Twitter video that he began exhibiting some mild symptoms, was tested, and found to be positive. He was swiftly followed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who also exhibited mild symptoms and who also tested positive for the disease. Considering the intense cabinet work of the last week, it's likely we'll see other officials come forward—and all this, of course, caps off the very same week in which Prince Charles, heir to the throne, began exhibiting mild symptoms, was tested and found positive.

If you haven't been following the pandemic in the U.K. closely, you might not realize what about this abundance of caution is so jarring to British ears. As of last week, the overall policy is not to test people displaying only mild symptoms. If you're not found to be at immediate risk for your life, you are advised to self-quarantine and nurse the coronavirus as you would a flu. The disease is so new that virtually the only difference hospitalization can make is putting you on a ventilator and on oxygen supply, should you need it. The effect is to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients who occupy life-saving space but would be treated quite similarly to how they would support themselves at home.

The exact same policy applies to medical staff. If you are a doctor or a nurse, and you're getting the symptoms, you are advised to call in sick. Ironically, and alarmingly, the result is that hospital capacity is being gnawed at from the other end—staff shortages—and, of course, that staff take and deal out to patients far more risks than they would if a robust testing system was in place.

The policy, however, does not seem to apply to celebrities (who presumably get around it by paying for private tests), politicians and royals. I first read about Prince Charles testing positive for COVID-19, at the exact moment my mother was walking through our front door. A 60-year-old nurse, she'd just finished a 12-hour nightshift at St Cuthbert's Hospice in County Durham, in the north of England. Both my mom and Charles at in at risk groups, if only by virtue of their age. But unlike Charles, she has no idea if she could be (asymptomatically) carrying the virus. Despite the government's promises, systematic testing of healthcare professionals has yet to materialize. The U.K.'s rate of testing continues to fall way below levels that the World Health Organization deems essential.

True, my mother is "ordinary." She does not have one ounce of royal blood. She is a Northern working-class woman with a heart of gold, a local hero beloved by our community. Unlike the heir apparent, she has lifetime of very practical experience in dealing with life-threatening illness. She began her training in the late-1970s at Newcastle's Royal Victoria infirmary. Back then, our country valued nurses. Not only was her education entirely free, she even received a wage while training. Being a trainee nurse was a job like any other. After qualifying as a state-registered nurse, she moved from a trauma unit to midwifery. And after taking a break to raise to me and my brother, she eventually found her way to palliative care and St Cuthbert's hospice.

Founded over three decades ago, St Cuthbert's exemplifies a service that people rarely think about until they need it. The hospice provides care for those with advanced illness and those approaching the end of their lives. Patients are treated with respect and dignity in a facility set within beautiful gardens.

Looking after people with life-threatening diseases is, as many of us will tragically learn, is one of the most important areas of nursing. It demands not only technical skills but a compassionate soul. The government must show similar compassion to those it has previously denigrated.

If the pandemic is to teach us anything, then it is that celebrity, political promise and status count for little in the face of a deadly existential threat. The disease doesn't discriminate; the discrimination begins when people start deciding how to allocate and ration care. True, there is some practical sense in finding out whether the head of government and a minister are at risk of being incapacitated or worse in the midst of a crisis. But with no personal ill will against Prince Charles, shouldn't frontline staff come ahead of ceremonial figures?

Today's royalty are cleaners, nurses, doctors, and supermarket workers—not hereditary kings and queens. We must treat them as such. This means not only celebrating their stories on Twitter or staging a coordinated national ovation, but actually addressing the systematic forms of cultural and economic inequality that deems someone like Prince Charles to be worth more than someone like my mum—even to the potential detriment of a warlike national effort.

And the changes needed to address the pandemic today should long outlast it. When this is all over, there must be no more nurses using food-banks, no more cleaners struggling to get by, and no more junior doctors collapsing from overwork. Certainly no medical and support staff being denied access to tests so readily available to the rich and famous. Enough is enough.

Dr. Philip J. Proudfoot is an anthropologist of humanitarian crisis at the University of Bath. He is doing his bit by washing his hands, staying at home and raising money for St Cuthbert's hospice.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.