‘Britain is Shooting Itself in the Foot’: Brexit, the NHS and Covid-19

In the last part of a three part interview, Dianna Djokey interviews German migrant and doctor Lisa,  about Brexit, how councils have fared in the pandemic, and the experience of being a migrant worker in the NHS. Read parts one and two here.

What do you think Britain can learn from Germany?

There has been a sense in German publications I’ve read that Britain is shooting itself in the foot and that the EU can’t rescue Britain and it’s not their job. I remember a comment in a local newspaper in the city where my mother lives said, ‘If Britain were to have a no-deal Brexit at the same time as a second wave of Covid one could assume that Britain gets two disasters for the price of one.’ I can’t remember the exact wording, I’m paraphrasing, [but other headlines said] ‘What responsible statesman or leader of a country would inflict something like that on their people?’

What damage do you think Brexit will have on the UK leaving the EU?

Although the transition period is still happening the damage has already long since been inflicted. I’ve read and heard about EU staff in the NHS leaving Britain because they are fed up [with Brexit]. I think the levels of racism and xenophobia have gone up, now also affecting EU citizens as well as people of colour. It seems [there’s] this general drive by far right nationalists to say, ‘Foreigners, get out’, or ‘People who are different from us get out’. I think the atmosphere has become a bit toxic [at times].

I think there is a number of things that can go horribly wrong [with Brexit] that are known, but what worries me are the unknown things that can lurk in the small print of some contract somewhere that nobody has really thought about and that only come to light as, say, a lorry can’t unload from the ferry in Rotterdam or 2,000 lorries backup in Dover or whatever.

Initially after Brexit, people weren’t really talking about Northern Ireland; that [came] later and has proved [to be] a major stumbling block and rightly so, and the Government is even willing to risk the peace in Northern Ireland, they now openly want to break international treaties. It’s reckless.

I don’t quite know what drives Britain to think that if only they posture and bluff enough the EU will give in. The German leaders seem to be fed-up and not willing to make too much compromise.

How has it been for you to watch Brexit and Covid happen at the same time?

It’s just like [being] in an alternate universe. The first six months of the pandemic I watched from Germany and there is of course the occasional mention of Brexit in the media, but generally it’s Germany dealing with the pandemic, and that felt unsettling.

My mother lives in a village with quite a lot of green space around so I was very privileged not to feel constrained into a small flat and that really helped my sanity. Everybody in the shop was wearing face masks and some were wearing gloves and here in Britain this seems to have fallen by the wayside very quickly or was never really in place because the Government didn’t give clear instruction.

It’s [like] watching a slow-motion train crash and I have decided for myself to prioritize my own well being, my own mental health and make sure I don’t end up with an unhealthy attitude of self sacrifice, because that would serve nobody. I need to look after my own wellbeing.

I was excluded from voting in the referendum, I have campaigned a lot for the EU against Brexit and in the local elections. I feel even though I’ve only been a British citizen less than 2 years, I’ve done a lot more than most to highlight what is happening and to show the consequences; to show what is happening with the NHS and to show what is happening with Brexit. So even though it feels like I haven’t done enough, in reality I have done more than the great majority of British people.

What are your thoughts on how Portsmouth City Council has dealt with Covid-19?

I’ve only been back in the UK for a couple of months and I’ve spent the majority of that time just getting back into work, and finding my feet so I’ve not followed particularly what Portsmouth City Council have done.

I think it’s good that they published a Covid-19 outbreak [plan]. I think it needs to be more specific in places, it needs to [include] more numbers and figures, but then that’s me with my scientific medical training.

I was unsettled to read in the outbreak [plan] that Portsmouth City Council obviously found it necessary to say that they have no involvement with the testing site at Tipner and that it’s a privatized thing where the Health Secretary keeps saying it’s NHS Test and Trace but it’s not, it’s nothing like NHS. I’m sure the Council is fed up with the Government putting centralized private things in place which it sounds like the Council have no say in.

I think Portsmouth City Council should publish, like proper daily figures and statistics about the Covid situation in Portsmouth.

[Editor’s note: the Council now has a web page reporting ‘latest Coronavirus figures for Portsmouth‘, this is not updated daily. For more information on statistics about Coronavirus cases in your area, see FullFact.]

I sometimes piece [the numbers] together from the Portsmouth News but they are just reporting the figures without any reference to anything else. As a national example, Germany has 83 million inhabitants and has had just over 12,500 Covid deaths. Britain has 67 million inhabitants and more than 52,000 direct Covid deaths and more than 70,000 excess deaths.

The numbers are pretty awful in the grand scheme of things. That’s not the councils’ fault because when I read about Leicester where they put one of the local lockdowns in place, the Mayor and the public health people in Leicester tried for weeks to get their hands on the actual data. The privatized Track and Trace system wouldn’t give it to them. That just indicates how fragmented this whole thing is [and] that is the Government’s fault. They could have put all the Test and Trace people under the umbrella of Public Health.

How have other migrants within the NHS thought about what’s going on?

When I talk with fellow EU migrants – there is a cleaner who is Romanian [and] another couple of domestic staff that are Polish – I get the impression that they are not connected to the systems that talk about these things. I am a trade union rep at my workplace and I’ve given them some information material about joining a union. One of them knew exactly what a trade union was but the other one didn’t have a clue so I had to explain. I think on one level migrants who have been here less time might not understand the political system.

It’s taken me ten years to research and understand more of the system because I’ve spent the first ten years in Britain just learning the job and the work systems. [Many] other migrants who do understand and feel personally affected have left. I think [some] European migrants, once they get citizenship, they don’t feel affected by it anymore. I know a lady who is also German, in Portsmouth, I know she got British citizenship and then I tried to invite her to some rallies and demonstrations in support of migrants and EU citizens and got a short reply saying, ‘It doesn’t affect me anymore.’ I think there is also among migrants a lack of solidarity.

I think it is quite multi-faceted, the responses from migrants towards other migrants. Certainly our department [in the NHS] would not work without migrants. Every time I do a headcount at meetings of who is from a non-British background, it’s 50% or above people who are not white British.

I remember in the early years of doing my job in Portsmouth when my white British consultant was on holidays he had an experienced Italian Registrar and me as a German, at that time a junior doctor, and then there was a black South African nurse and a white British support worker on shift. We had a patient who wanted to see a white British Doctor and we said, ‘There isn’t one, this is it, this is us.’

It is important as staff to speak up for each other and show solidarity, and not tolerate racism or xenophobia.


S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:

  • voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
  • small businesses and self-employed people
  • BAME communities
  • people with disabilities

We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences in any of these areas, get in touch with us over on Facebook and Twitter, or email us at submissions@starandcrescent.org.uk

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