Socialist Worker

Setting the record straight on how migrants built NHS

Issue No. 2530

A Group of nurses at Mary Seacole Hospital in London

A Group of nurses at Mary Seacole Hospital in London (Pic: BBC/Maroon Productions Ltd/Victor Chimara)


“Health tourism” is never far from the right wing press’s lips. But the contribution that nurses from Africa and the Caribbean made to the NHS barely gets a mention.

BBC Four’s new programme Black Nurses aims to set the record straight.

Just as the first boatloads of West Indian people were arriving in 1948, the NHS was in the process of being born.

A recruitment crisis soon hit—demand was high but the number of health workers available was low. Ministers dispatched people to the colonies in a bid to attract young people to come to the aid of the “mother country”.

But instead of gratitude, the thousands of trainee nurses that came faced the most appalling racism.

Bosses assumed that black women were not suitable to be “State Registered Nurses”, because the training was thought too hard for them.

Shunted

Many were shunted into being State Enrolled Nurses, a position that guaranteed they would only do menial work on the wards.

“I just felt like nothing—I was a slave, I was taken for granted,” recalls Sislin Hunte in the programme.

Through sheer determination, she went on to retrain as a district nurse.

Little was done to prepare the trainees for the prejudice they would experience from patients.

Allyson Williams MBE, a former midwife from Trinidad, remembers that some people would slap her hands away from them when she tried to examine them. “Your black is going to rub off on me,” they would scream.

Life outside the hospitals was rarely better.

The struggles against health service cuts and for decent pay and career progression from the 1970s onward don’t get a mention

Trainee nurses earned a pittance, making dreams of saving enough money to qualify and go home little more than a fantasy.

Those who began families in Britain, or brought over young children, found there was little or no childcare.

They had to work permanent nights so they could be with their children for part of the day.

The programme pulls no punches when describing those early decades of the NHS, then moves on to the happier terrain of the present day.

But if you were looking for an explanation for why things changed for the better, you’ll only get part of the story here.

The struggles against health service cuts and for decent pay and career progression from the 1970s onward don’t get a mention. Instead, advancement is the result of individual endeavour.

Their stories are impressive. But the history of black and white health workers uniting to better their conditions and defend the NHS is just as valuable.

Black Nurses—the Women Who Saved the NHS, BBC Four, Thursday 24 November, 9pm

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