Healing wounds

My partner recently injured his hand on a faulty ladder. This took off an area of skin over a proximal finger joint resulting in a dramatic amount of bleeding and an inability to use the finger. Over the days and weeks since we have watched the healing process with fascination, noticing the stages of recovery of both form and function. Normal wound healing has four recognised stages: haemostasis, inflammation, proliferation, and remodelling. For a wound to heal successfully, the four phases must occur in the right sequence and time frame. Many factors can interfere with this process, risking impaired wound healing.

As we watched the re-epitheliation and remodelling of his physical wound it made me think about the unseen wounds many of us have suffered since the start of the pandemic, and the impaired wound healing we have been experiencing. So many people have been harmed not only by the virus itself but also by the lockdowns and the lack of a social safety net, eroded for decades by austerity. I see wounded people often in my work. They are incredibly adaptive and resilient but the body keeps the score, and many chronic diseases and distressing physical symptoms have their roots in emotional and social distress. I cannot speak for these people but I see them. I see their suffering and their strength.

Neither can I speak for all NHS staff, but is is well recognised that the pandemic traumatised healthcare workers. We experienced moral injury long before COVID-19, when we did not have the resources to provide the quality of care we wished to, were let down by a decimated social care system, or were forced to turn people in need away due to factors such as their immigration status. The pandemic brought us challenges that were all too familiar, but, more than that, it highlighted the pervasiveness, severity and proximity of this harm. Moral distress is the immediate result of participating in or witnessing a morally troubling situation. It may linger a few hours after the event, but if an individual’s ‘sense of the good’ remains intact, it often resolves. Severe or repeated injustices may leave a ‘moral residue’, which can accumulate and lead to moral injury. Without intervention this can lead to burnout, where distress is replaced by symptoms similar to those experienced by trauma victims, including numbing, depersonalisation and detachment. During the pandemic, moments of distress were frequent: staff shortages; inadequate personal protective equipment; colleague sickness; shortages of critical care beds, caring for critically ill people on general wards; cancellation of outpatient and elective activity, letting down countless people in need; and the need to allocate limited resources, deciding which patients would receive which treatments. This was within an environment of: social fragmentation; family sickness and financial worries; loss of access to protective activities and hobbies; inadequate childcare; lack of trust in governmental instututions; undermining and attack from the press; anger from the public; and the general fear of what might come next both inside and outside the hospital.

I can now see that last year I teetered on the edge of burnout. Repeated moral distress left me injured but I, like so many of my NHS colleagues, trudged on through the pain of those injuries. Despite recognising the signs of depression and anxiety, and using techniques I had learned during previous periods of poor mental health, I did not adequately understand the cause of my distress and the process and importance of healing. Having come through the other side I am holding tight my restored self-identity. Knowing that by continuing to work in the NHS under the current government I will suffer moral distress again and again, I have committed to deepening my understanding of the process of injury, healing and moral repair.

36” x 24” Acrylic paint on canvas, 2017. Cheyanne Silver.
From: www.luc.edu/features/stories/artsandculture/burnoutart/


For a small wound it bled a surpring amount, but having applied pressure and dressings to my partner’s finger, haemostatic processes began immediately and successfully produced a clot. In a fresh wound microvascular injury leads to extravasation of blood into the wound and initiates the coagulation cascade. There is constriction of vessel walls; and the resulting clot formation and platelet aggregation limits further blood loss. The platelets trapped in the clot are essential, not only for haemostasis but also for a normal inflammatory response, as they release pro-inflammatory cytokines and growth factors. These proteins attract and activate fibroblasts, endothelial cells and macrophages and amplify the response by activating the complement and kinin cascades.

In healthcare a moral injury may provoke a flow of emotions but there is a need to ‘hold it together’, to hide any injury from those for whom we care, and to continue the work. In a fresh wound the flow of emotions must be stemmed and therefore there is a constriction and suppression of the systems which allow feeling, reflection and insight. With the ‘bleeding’ controlled, we can continue to work, but the injury provokes an unseen emotional inflammatory cascade. This cycle of injury and suppression may happen many times a day in a system stretched far beyond breaking point: being forced to leave an elderly person on a trolley in A&E for 19 hours as there are no ward beds available; interrupting a patient expressing their distress as we have so many others to attend to, being forced to swallow the guilt of failing to show the empathy we feel; telling someone that their operation has been cancelled again due to lack of capacity; hearing the horror of a family’s fight to exist on the poverty line with nothing but words to offer; looking into the eyes of a woman trying to access much needed healthcare but whose immigration status leaves her with no recourse to public funds; apologising again that someone’s dignity has not been maintained as there are simply not enough nurses to provide ther personal care they need. Being a physical embodiment of an inadequate welfare state takes it’s toll. There is only so much that we can suppress.

Image from: Negut, I, Grumezescu, V & Grumezescu, A. (2018). Treatment Strategies for Infected Wounds. Molecules. 23. 2392. 10.3390/molecules23092392.


After the bleeding stopped, we watched the finger swell as inflammatory cells migrated into the wound, The inflammatory phase is characterised by the infiltration of neutrophils, macrophages, and lymphocytes. Neutrophils clear invading microbes and cellular debris in the wound area, but also produce substances such as proteases and reactive oxygen species, which cause some collateral damage. Macrophages play multiple roles in wound healing. They release cytokines that recruit and activate additional leucocytes. They also induce and clear apoptotic cells, paving the way for the resolution of inflammation. As macrophages clear cells, they transition to a reparative state that stimulates keratinocytes, fibroblasts, and angiogenesis to promote tissue regeneration. T-lymphocytes migrate into wounds following the inflammatory cells. and skin gamma-delta T-cells regulate wound healing by maintaining tissue integrity, defending against pathogens, and regulating inflammation.

An emotional inflammatory state is a chaotic, raw mixture of psychological and physical sensations. There is no coherent narrative of the events causing the moral distress, but rather a fragmented series of visual and visceral memories, juxtaposed with previous related experiences. Rest and reflection are needed to order these fragments into a comprehensible story, and to clear the debris of the wound. Rather than recruitment of immune cells to stimulate a reparative state, neural pathways of repair are engaged to regulate and reduce the inflammation, and organise the experience so that it can begin to resemble memory and lose it’s intensity and power to overwhelm.

If there is no time and space to organise the inflammation then moral distress can lead to moral injury. The event and it’s contextual factors cannot be seen as separate from the self, leading to feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. After a long series of moral injuries I could not see beyond myself to the complexities and inadequacies of the wider system. I felt guilty that I wasn’t a better doctor. I felt shame that I could not do more to alleviate the distress I saw everywhere. I felt embarrassed that I was not as resilient as my colleagues, who seemed able to glide serenely above the chaos, unharmed. My work felt pointless and I felt empty and detached.

Small injuries can be shrugged off but damage accumulates and leaves us vulnerable. For me, the deepest cut came at the end of a long day when I had stayed late to speak to the family of a patient who was dying. The family had already been abusive to nursing staff and junior doctors on my team. We had excused this as part of their distress at their relative’s illness but I had insisted that I provide the update that day to save others from further harm. On returning to the ward after a long and overbooked clinic, I explained as sensitively and clearly as possible that the elderly patient had multiple organ failure and that sadly no medical intervention could stop the dying process. Our focus was to treat symptoms and relieve suffering. I was met with anger, was accused of murder and was threatened with legal action and referral to the GMC. I left that day feeling empty, slept badly and returned the next day for more.


As days passed my partner and I watched the raw surface of the wound start to dull as epithelial proliferation established a new protective layer of nascent skin. At first fragile, it gradually gained strength as fibroblasts laid down collagen. In the proliferative phase of wound healing a provisional matrix is established over which re-epithelialisation can progress. In the dermis at this time, fibroblasts and endothelial cells are the most prominent cell types and support capillary growth, collagen formation, and the generation of granulation tissue. Within the wound bed, fibroblasts produce collagen as well as glycosaminoglycans and proteoglycans, which are major components of the extracellular matrix.

In the process of healing from moral injury, a matrix of self knowledge is formed, over which we can rebuild our agency. During this process there is pain and discomfort. It is an active, not a passive process and requires an honest examination of the circumstances of injury and clarity on what is and is not possible in the circumstances in which we work. It is essential to avoid a deficit perspective which suggests individual clinicians are lacking in psychological resources or resilience. Safe spaces for this type of discussion and reflection are lacking in healthcare. In addition, those who most need these spaces may not seek them out. Certainly a consequence of my own psychological distress was a detachment and self imposed isolation from those who might offer support. I am aware that a retreat from the world is a warning sign that I am not well, and yet this insight does not help me to reach out. I am eternally grateful for friends and family who reach in, continuing to extend love, support, invitations to social events and a listening ear, even when I repeatedly fail to respond. An unexpected thoughtful gift from colleagues shattered my illusion that I am nothing more than a name on a rota. In moments of darkness I do not feel deserving of such love, but the fact that it exists creates a safety net, preventing me from falling ever deeper.

Image from: Negut, I, Grumezescu, V & Grumezescu, A. (2018). Treatment Strategies for Infected Wounds. Molecules. 23. 2392. 10.3390/molecules23092392.


Weeks later, my partner now has a thin pink scar over his finger. No longer a functional impairment the wound is a visual reminder of injury, and a warning to take care operating the ladder and other machinery. Following proliferation and extracellular matrix synthesis, wound healing enters the final remodelling phase, which can last for years. Many of the newly formed capillaries regress, and the extracellular matrix undergoes remodelling so that the wound structure approaches that of the normal tissue. The wound also undergoes contraction mediated by contractile fibroblasts that appear in the wound. Small wounds heal fully and leave no trace; larger injuries leave a permanent scar.

So it is with moral injury. The healing process involves a remodelling of our beliefs about the limits of our personal responsibility for a system which does not support our moral values. Shame is reorganised into self-compassion, worthlessness is remodelled into courage, our self-image undergoes repair such that it approaches that of our pre-injured self. But deep wounds leave a scar – we are forever changed.

Factors affecting wound healing

Multiple factors can lead to impaired wound healing; these may be local or systemic. Local factors are those that directly influence the characteristics of the wound itself, such as foreign bodies, oxygenation and vascular supply. Systemic factors are the overall health or disease state of the individual that affect their ability to heal. These include age, stress, diabetes, smoking, alcohol, and nutritional state. Many of these factors are inter-related but many are also modifiable.

Moral distress can be mitigated and moral injury prevented if the triggering event is removed, but this is not always possible. Addressing moral injury to prevent burnout is even more challenging. It ‘requires attending both to the organisational climates and structures that lead to ethical violations and to the clinician’s ruptured moral identity.‘ It has been found that healthcare workers commonly feel that healthcare leaders prioritise finances over patient and clinician health. These leaders may be department or care group leads, hospital executives or politicians. When employees trust that leadership is committed to their wellbeing, they report less job stress, higher participation in activities that support wellness, and greater levels of health promoting behaviour. They also perform better in their role. Such trust is hard won and easily lost.

My healing only began when I accepted that I was injured and took steps to create the space I needed to heal. I had taken on too many commitments, was suffering severe sleep deprivation, and had taken very little annual leave in the years since the start of the pandemic. These local factors interacted with systemic factors at work including: poor staff retention; the constant ask from government and management to do more with less; a feeling of being let down by a system only interested in treating sickness not on creating health; the daily frustrations of the inadequacies of the digital and physical healthcare environment; and being forced to witness the deep harms of longterm austerity on a daily basis. This toxic combination impaired my ability to shed the moral distress I experienced, which led to moral injury and the warning signs of impending burnout.

Healing was supported by restarting sertraline, which was essential to improve my sleep qulaity. I was routinely awake at 4am, experiencing intense anxiety; a racing heart and constant nausea. The lack of restorative sleep prevented any meaningful engagement with my feelings, or analysis of the causes of my distress. With sleep came perspective, the ability to articulate what I was experiencing, and the start of recovery. I was able to break out of my self imposed isolation cell and fall into the safety net of a supportive group of friends and family. I also cannot understate the value of a supportive partner. Love is not cinematic grand statements and gestures, it is the daily act of caring: making dinner, doing laundry, a word of encouragement, a hand on your hand, patience, sharing, making plans, investing in a future together. The other essential ingredient was a holiday. I took three weeks off work, my longest break since starting registrar training, and I left the continent. It usually takes a week to decompress and feel any separation of myself from my professional identify. The knowledge that I would be away for an extended period meant that I planned ahead and managed the expectations of others far more effectively than usual. The minute I switched on my out of office message I felt a weight lifted. People say that a change is as good as a rest but it’s not always true. Rest is essential.

Preventing loss

Wound healing is a complex process. Multiple factors can affect the process and final outcome. Conceptualising the experiences of healthcare workers as moral injury reminds us of the profound moral questions central to the daily practice of medicine, and prompts us to examine local and systemic factors which influence the severity of injury and process of healing. Clinicians are not simply tired after working long hours or physically strenuous shifts; they are taking great personal risk to care for their fellow human beings.

Feelings of detachment and worthlessness now feel distant, and I have returned to the enthusiastic, sociable, somewhat idealistic, person I recognise. But I know that if I am not alert to the risk of moral injury such feelings are not so far away. We owe it to ourselves to pay more than lip service to self care. We owe it to each other to reject the discourse of personal responsibility and resilience and to demand change in the circumstances in which we work. If we don’t, the wounds of healthcare workers will result in irreversible societal loss.

Patients not passports

I spent this week scrolling through my news feed, watching war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. A hospital was just bombed. I sent more money to humanitarian organisations including Doctors of the World. Whilst it is easy to feel powerless in the face of terrible world events, there are ways we can stand in solidarity. And whilst our minds are focused on people fleeing conflict, it is a good time to consider how refugees are treated if they reach the UK and need healthcare. I was therefore pleased to be part of a panel this week, to launch the Southwark Patients not Passports campaign.

It included a screening of NHS Borderlands, an investigative documentary into the human cost of charging migrants for accessing the NHS, made by Bare Life Films. It features Angela who, after fleeing Zimbabwe in fear for her life, sought asylum in the UK where she has lived with her husband for 20 years. Following a vital hysterectomy operation Angela was – without warning – issued a bill for £8,000 by the NHS. Angela is not allowed to work and has no source of income and this bill jeopardizes her life in the UK forever. There are many stories like Angela’s, most untold and undocumented. This film shows how healthcare workers and campaigners are fighting alongside Angela to keep the border out of the NHS.

Following the film I was one of several speakers; Kam Adiseshiah, Senior Immigration Solicitor at Southwark Law Centre; Angela, whose story is told in the film; and Jan O’Malley, Lambeth and Southwark Patients Not Passports founder. I gave a brief overview of the MedAct report ‘Patients not Passports – challenging healthcare charging in the NHS‘. Below is a summary of some of the key points.

The NHS was founded on the principles that care is available to all on a non-discriminatory basis, based on need, not ability to pay. Yet the government prioritises certain lives over others, and through hostile environment policies, violates healthcare workers’ legal and ethical duty of confidentiality to patients, dismantling the system of universal healthcare in the UK.

A brief history of NHS charging

Picture of Nye Bevan in sepia tones with a quote: 'Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.

The NHS was founded in 1948 on the principle of care free to all at the point of need. In fact these principles started to be eroded quickly with The NHS Act of 1949 including provision that allowed for the Secretary of State to charge for NHS services people who were not ordinarily resident in Great Britain, a provision that remained unchanged in both the 1977 and 2006 National Health Services Acts. Initially, although the provision for charging existed, no attempts were made to charge those seeking NHS care.

Timeline of NHS charging with key milestones eg NHS founding in 1948, Immigration Act 2014 - details are explained in the text that follows in the article.

In 1982 the introduction of The National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) Regulations marked a new era in attempts to charge people to use the NHS. But it was during the 2010s that this escalated. The 2014 Immigration Act modified the definition of ‘ordinary residence’ to make it reliant on the person having ‘indefinite leave to remain in the UK. This change excluded vast numbers of people from NHS care and allowed for the application of an Immigration Health Surcharge to those people applying for temporary visas (£624 a year, £470 a year for children and students). It excluded students, those on work visas, and those on family re-union visas from free NHS care. The 2015 regulations placed a requirement on NHS Trusts to identify and charge people not eligible for free NHS care; and increased the cost that people could be charged to 150% of the national tariff. The 2017 regulations placed a statutory duty on NHS Trusts to charge people upfront for treatment if they were thought to be ineligible for free NHS care and mandated that NHS Trusts record people’s chargeable status on their patient record. The 2017 regulations extended charging beyond secondary care and into areas of community care including: termination of pregnancy, community mental health services, and some district nursing services. The Department of Health and Social Care had originally planned to extend charges to A&E and some GP services by 2016 but have delayed this process. The intention to extend charging remains and the 2017 regulations should be understood in the context of Government plans to extend charging to all NHS services.

This increase in measures to charge ‘overseas visitors’ has also included measures to improve ‘detection’ of people ineligible for free NHS care such as an expansion in the number of overseas managers, incentives for Trusts to identify and charge ineligible users and sanctions if they do not.

Image of a man in jeans and a black t-shirt, with a big sign around his neck with red writing saying 'I am a victim of torture'


There are exemptions from charging for certain groups of people. This includes: victims of trafficking or modern day slavery; victims of violence: domestic violence, sexual violence, torture and FGM; children under the care of a Local Authority; people detained under the Mental Health Act; asylum-seekers; and refugees.

There are also exemptions for certain medical conditions, including a long list of infectious diseases such as HIV, TB, cholera, meningicoccal meningitis and septicaemia, leprosy, malaria, measles, flu, SARS and viral hepatitis.

The problem with these exemptions is that people do not arrive in a healthcare settings pre-labelled with their status or condition. A significant level of trust is required between patient and clinician for them to feel able to disclose a history of FGM, torture or trafficking. In addition, someone with a cough and weight loss worried that they may have Tuberculosis (and therefore exempt), could have TB excluded and be diagnosed with lung cancer. Lung cancer is not on the list of exemptions, and the patient would then be chargable for all tests and treatments. This could lead to someone being given the news of a devastating life threatening condition, and a bill for thousands of pounds with it, having fled violence and with no source of income.

Care that can’t wait

Despite the fact that Trusts have a statutory duty to charge upfront, emergency care can be provided without first obtaining payment. Specifically, immediately necessary treatment can be given:

  • to save their life
  • to prevent a condition from becoming immediately life-threatening
  • to prevent permanent serious damage from occurring

Urgent treatment can be given if clinicians state that the treatment is not immediately necessaty but cannot wait until the person can be reasonably expected to leave the UK. Clinicians need to know when a patient can reasonably be expected to return home in order to decide if their need for NHS community or secondary care is urgent, or if it can safely await their return. Guidance suggests assuming 6 months if this is unclear.

It is vital that healthcare workers understand these rules, in order to ensure timely access to treatment for patients under their care. But there is no education programme for medical professionals covering the regulations. My expeirence is that healthcare workers are unaware of the rules, and therefore disempowered. This leaves patients at the mercy of bureaucracy; their only information source overseas officers, who are working in the best interest of the Treasury, not the patient or public health.

The Hostile Environment

It is important not to view the NHS charging regulations in isolation. They are part of a suite of policies which are designed to make it harder for all migrants to access work, housing, education, services, and healthcare, or live without the fear of deportation.

Too often headlines reduce migrants to a crisis of costs and numbers, rendering their humanity dispensable. This dangerously obscures the violent racism these policies espouse to those who do not experience it. Telling the stories of real people affected, such as Angela, is essential to show these policies for what they really are: racist, dehumanising and deadly.

Everyday bordering

Picture of a poster put up in an NHS hospital. It shows a stethoscope and a bank card. It says 'Owe cash to the NHS? Your visa application may be at risk.'

Healthcare spaces should be sanctuaries, providing safety, protection and care. When the hostile environment enters the NHS it destroys safety and trust. By requiring healthcare organisations to ID check patients and share information with the Home Office, ‘everyday bordering’ as part of the Hostile Environment has turned what was an external, territorial border into an internal border. Healthcare workers are forced to become border guards.

Cover page of Report by Maternity Action 'What Price Safe Motherhood?' showing hands holding toys like a rattle and sophie the giraffe.

All maternity treatment is deemed to be immediately necessary and as such should never be withheld as a result of the person’s ability to pay. However, as a result of the charging policy many women are deterred from seeking care. In addition, the confusing way charges are communicated by Trusts often leads women to withdraw from care. Maternity Action surveyed women that had been impacted by charging for maternity care and found that none of them had been given any information about support they might access to manage the debt they would incur. As documented in the report ‘What Price Safe Motherhood? it does not matter whether charges are demanded upfront or pursed after care is given, for many women the prospect of being charged at all is enough to stop them accessing maternity services. A futher report Maternal Health: exploring the lived experiences of pregnant women seeking asylum,’ documents: stress and poor nutrition affecting the growth of unborn babies and subsequent difficulties breastfeeding; swelling and skin conditions from having to wash clothes by hand; pelvic pain from climbing multiple flights of stairs and health impacts such as rashes and asthma in young children resulting from poor housing conditions, including damp.

Researchers surveyed service users at Doctors of the World’s London clinic and found that around 80% of undocumented migrants reported fear of arrest as a deterrent from seeking care, and around 30% of asylum seekers stated that having been denied healthcare previously was a barrier to accessing further care (The lived experiences of access to healthcare for people seeking and refused asylum 2018). A later study (Delays and destitution: an audit of Doctors of the World’s Hospital Access Project 2018-20) found that those who were facing charges for secondary care faced an average delay to treatment of 37 weeks, with this delay remaining essentially the same (36 weeks) for those people who needed ‘urgent’ or ‘immediately necessary’ care.

Myths and legends

The Cost Recovery Programme of 2014 was introduced to “increase the revenues available to the NHS by introducing more effective practices to recover costs from visitors and migrants ineligible for free healthcare“. In documents published before implementation it was recognised that most chargeable users of NHS care have no means to pay.

Cost recovery is also compromised by the fact that undocumented migrants make up the largest group of chargeable overseas visitors – approx. 500,000, many of whom have few resources to pay charges incurred.

Sustaining services, ensuring fairness: a consultation on migrant access and financial
contribution to NHS provision in England. 2013

Health tourism is cited in this document and others as a reason to clamp down on ‘free-riding’. So-called ‘health tourism’, where people travel to the UK with the express purpose of accessing free NHS care, is a political concept that is almost ubiquitous in the media and is often pointed to as a major drain on NHS resources. However, in reality there is very little evidence to substantiate the existence of the phenomenon, with some studies even suggesting that migrants are more likely to return to their home country to access treatment when they need it. On the other hand, there is robust evidence to show that on the whole migrant populations are healthier and use health resources less than host populations.

The Government’s own estimate puts the cost of deliberate misuse of the NHS by overseas visitors at £300 million at most, equating to roughly 0.3% of the NHS budget. This figure does not represent what could be considered recoverable through charging people for care as it includes the use of primary care and A&E services and does not take into account an assessment of the likelihood of the people charged being able to pay the bill. The Government itself admits that even if it did extend charging to all services it would still be unlikely to recoup the total costs of this supposed 0.3%.

This estimate also obscures the cost of deterring people from care that arises from the policy, and the cost of implementing and administering ID checks and invoicing patients. Emergency care is more expensive care. The people most likely to be charged for care are those who are least able to pay, many of whom are long-term residents who have been unable to regularise their immigration status. Three quarters of Trusts are now using private firms to pursue patients suggesting that not only are Trusts failing to use their discretion to write off debts owed by people that have no means to pay; but also that private companies are now profiting from exclusionary Hostile Environment policies. In 2019 Health Secretary Matt Hancock provided an additional £1 million funding to NHS Trusts to increase the number of ‘cost-recovery experts’ in an attempt to address the administrative burden on NHS Trusts.

The financial impact of restricting care has been investigated by three recent studies across Europe that found providing universal access to preventative healthcare, including access for undocumented migrants, is more cost effective than restricting access to people with certain migration statuses thus forcing them to rely on emergency care.

Trummer et al (2016), EUFRA (2015), and Bozorgmehr et al (2015).

Research at the Doctors of the World clinic concluded that delaying seeking care until emergency treatment is required is incentivised if it is the only service that is free to access. Not only is this behaviour risky for individual health but it also puts additional pressure on the health system through increasing demand on an already stretched emergency service, shifting utilisation away from cheaper preventative care, to expensive emergency treatment.

A threat to public health

A system in which people are too frightened to seek care because of the threat of charging and data sharing, is a threat to public health. Evidence shows that since the introduction of the Cost Recovery Programme in 2014, there has been a significant delay for Tuberculosis (TB) treatment among non-UK born patients. Strategies to control TB centre around three key principles: early diagnosis; effective treatment; and preventative interventions for those at high risk. The non-specific nature of symptoms associated with TB, such as fevers and weight loss, often mean that diagnosis people present more than once to multiple healthcare providers before diagnosis. The window of time that elapses between symptom onset and treatment is critical. If the time-to-diagnosis increases, the individual concerned is exposed to higher risk of longterm damage and death, and, for infectious cases, the wider public is exposed to the risk of disease transmission.

The same is true of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of the current COVID19 pandemic. ‘Migrants’ Access to Healthcare During the Coronavirus Crisis’ highlights numerous cases of migrants being denied healthcare outright; or refusing to seek care due ot fear of governmentpolicies or racial profiling. This is a stark example of the fact that none of us are safe until all of us are safe.

Moral Injury

Patient confidentiality is a core obligation for all healthcare professionals. The General Medical Council (GMC) makes it clear that ‘patients have a right to expect that their personal information will be held in confidence by their doctors’ (GMC, 2013). In April 2017, the GMC re-emphasised that ‘[a]sking for a patient’s consent to disclose information shows respect, and is part of good communication …’ (GMC, 2017). Breaching confidentiality is accepted in certain circumstances. The GMC states that, for a disclosure to take place, it must be clear that ‘the benefits to an individual or to society of the disclosure must outweigh both the patient’s and the public interest in keeping the information confidential’.

The Hostile Environment and the demand that healthcare workers breach confidentiality to share data on patients with the Home Office, knowing that this risks negatively affecting their health and possibly threatening theor life, presents a significant challenge to the ethical frameworks that underpin the work of healthcare practitioners. Policies that require staff to check a person’s immigration status; the datasharing systems that send patient information to the Home Office; the decisions made about what care a person can afford, or how much pain they can bear before being expected to leave the UK; make healthcare workers complicit in a system that causes harm to patients by default. These policies could change the doctor–patient relationship potentially irreparably, creating even greater harm.

The concept of moral injury as applied to healthcare workers has gained attention in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moral injury can occur when someone engages in, fails to prevent, or witnesses acts that conflict with their values or beliefs and when they experience betrayal by trusted others especially when this is perceived as avoidable, or they are powerless to change it.

Technical Advisory Group: moral injury in health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov.wales

There has been inadequate research on the impact of the hostile environment policies on healthcare workers, but for many healthcare workers, bringing borders into the NHS directly conflicts with their values and beliefs. The NHS is a trusted institition, and destroying that trust by opening the doors to the Home Office is damaging. Healthcare workers often feel powerless in the face of statutory obligations, the power of the immigration system and the threat of censure or legal action.

Power in numbers

We are not powerless.

There is a strong history of healthcare workers fighting against racist charging policies in healthcare, wich is documented in the New Economics Foundation report ‘Patients not passports: learning from the international struggle for universal healthcare’ . In Spain a mass movement of healthcare workers formed a campaign entitled Yo Sí Sanidad Universal. They organised conscientious objection from healthcare workers, created schemes to support people to access care, and created a national case study reporting mechanism to track the impacts of the RDL 16/2012 charging policy. Alongside the grassroots mobilisation from Yo Sí Sanidad Universal, a network of civil society organisations collectively known as REDER worked to challenge the policy by monitoring the harm caused and by challenging the human rights impact of the policy through the Committee on Economic and Social Rights (CESR). The CESR found that the policy contravened Spain’s obligations to Article 12, citing that denying healthcare on the basis of migration status represented unacceptable discrimination. These campaigns eventually led to the Spanish Government repealing RDL 16/2012 and restoring undocumented migrants’ right to access healthcare.

No Pass Laws to Health, formed as a coalition of law centres and migrant organisations in North London and sought to document and resist passport checks and charges introduced in the UK in 1981. The campaign took their name – No Pass Laws to Health – from the pass law regime of Apartheid South Africa, a system of governance that has its roots in British colonialism. As the campaign continually argued, the NHS charges for overseas visitors were unlikely to generate significant revenue. And unlike todays hostile envionment, the charges were not a statutory duty. Burdened with the signifcant costs of administering the passport checks and charges, along with continued resistance from unions, healthcare workers, and the affected patients, by 1984 many hospitals had dropped the charging regime having made a fianancial loss.

Today, there is a growing movement of people opposed to the Hostile Environment and NHS migrant charging. This takes the form of campaigns around individuals such as Angela featured in the documentary film ‘NHS Borderlands’, and Simba, Simba faces a bill of £100,000 following a stroke that may have been preventable had he been able to access preventative NHS care. The Justice for Simba campaign includes local individuals, Medact Sheffield, Docs Not Cops Sheffield, South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), Sheffield – Student Action for Refugees – STAR, and These Walls Must Fall. Albert Thompson’s story was widely reported, when his cancer care was delayed after being presented with a bill for £54000. Thompson (also known as Sylvester) had lived and worked in London for 44 years but had never regularised his status, being part of the Windrush generation. Campaigning led to him receiving NHS treatment, and he was later given indefinite leave to remain.

The movement also takes the form of Patients not Passport groups, working locally and nationally, supported by organisations such as Docs not Cops, MedAct and Migrants Organise.

Campaigners have successfully lobbied medical unions and Royal Colleges to speak out and demand an end to policies which damage the health of our communities.

A decade on from the start of the Hostile Environment; a decade of injustice; racism; xenophobia; and irreparable harm to some of the most vulnerable and valuable members of our communities, and it is time to stand together and say no. We must demand the removal of all migrant charging polcies and the reinstatement of universal healthcare.

I am not a border guard, I am a doctor.

Tunnels, traffic and toxic air

Over the last few years I have become increasingly concerned about preventable death and disease from air pollution. As a Respiratory doctor, I worry for my patients living with asthma and COPD, but air pollution affects everyone of every age in London, and every organ of the body. Of course it doesn’t affect us all equally, as the poorest in the city contribute least but are affected most by the toxic air they are forced to breahe. Air pollution is a stark example of the social and health inequalities exacerbated by Climate change. Before the Mayoral elections, I and friends from MedAct made short films, showing the air pollution on our commutes from home to work.

I had hoped that Sadiq Khan, a mayoral candidate at the time, would be a strong advocate for Clean Air, and he has been, at least in words. But actions speak far louder, and disappointingly he has not cancelled the Silvertown Tunnel which will bring more toxic fumes to some of the most polluted communities in London. What follows is a copy of a letter I recently sent to Sadiq Khan. I am yet to receive a response.

Dear Sadiq Khan,

I am writing to ask you to cancel the Silvertown Tunnel. I am a South London resident and Respiratory Specialist doctor, working at Kings College Hospital. I see the effects of air pollution on a daily basis, not only exacerbations of asthma and COPD in my Respiratory patients, but an excess of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Air pollution has profound effects across the life course and is an entirely preventable cause of premature death. There is no place for the Silvertown Tunnel in a time of climate emergency when there is overwhelming evidence of the dangers of traffic related air pollution.

When I voted for you as Mayor of London, I believed I was voting for a Mayor who would prioritise the health of Londoners above other interests. I had seen you work to implement the ULEZ, introduce low emission buses, end the licencing of new diesel taxis and invest in cycling infrastructure. You have shown that major reductions in toxic pollutants can be achieved and that businesses and the public are willing to make the necessary changes to deliver this. But the Silvertown Tunnel risks undermining all this progress.

As you have said, air pollution is a social justice issue. “It’s the poorest people, least likely to own a car, least likely to cause the toxic air problems, who are most likely to suffer the consequences.” These words ring hollow when you know that the Silvertown Tunnel will increase air pollution for some of the city’s poorest people in Newham, and will disproportionately affect communities of colour. Children in Newham already have lungs that are 10% smaller than lungs of children in richer, less polluted areas. It is unjustifiable to allow this tunnel to go ahead, funneling traffic, including heavy freight vehicles, into Newham. It is in direct opposition to your stated aims, and undermines all of the work you have previously done on improving air quality.

As you know, because the proposed Silvertown Tunnel has HGV landers, and is bigger than the Blackwall tunnel, it will be used by larger HGVs and this new traffic will use existing already saturated approach roads, causing yet more congestion and air pollution near over 160,000 children on each side of the river and local schools within 500m of feeder and approach roads, many of which are already suffering illegal or damaging levels of dirty air. HGV logistics centres are planned near the tunnel mouths on both sides of the river.

The tunnel is opposed by the adjacent boroughs of Lewisham, Southwark, Newham, Hackney and some Greenwich councilors. It is also opposed by environmental health, transport and climate policy experts, air quality campaigners, active travel NGOs, climate activists, politicians from all parties across East and South East London, local residents, local headteachers, cycling campaigners and cycle logistics companies.

You, as Mayor of London, have the power to cancel the Silvertown tunnel. I urge you to reassess the economic, environmental and public health viability of the project in light of: the carbon emission reductions that London must make to meet the Paris Agreement compliant carbon budget; evidence on serious health impacts of air pollution including harmful particulates from ‘zero emission’ vehicles; the implications of COVID19 on the financial viability and future of transport for London.

At the recent summit you held, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said “It’s going to cost money but it will save lives, so this is all about saving lives. We need to be very bold, and we need to be very loud”. Rosamund knows better than any of us the devastating health consequences of air pollution. Please don’t let her, and all Londoners down, by allowing this tunnel to go ahead.

The Silvertown Tunnel scheme will lock East and South East London into high levels of heavy motor traffic, air pollution and carbon emissions for decades, and make already illegal air quality worse for many. Environmental justice demands that the health of those in Newham, a borough with a high BAME population, must not be sacrificed for the benefit of ‘growth’ for other Londoners. We have a fantastic opportunity to divert the estimated £2 billion cost to alternative projects which would help us meet World Health Organisation Air Quality Guidelines for particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and sulphur dioxide and make London a modern Clean Air city.

Don’t let your Mayoral legacy be more preventable deaths from air pollution.

I ask you to cancel the project immediately.
Best wishes,

You can learn more about the Silvertown Tunnel at the campaign website.

You can write to your MP or Mayor Sadiq Khan through writetothem.

Mutual aid

A view across Greenland Dock, London in teh early morning when is is dark, looking across at a misty view of Canary Wharf.

Joy is elusive this month. I leave home early and return after a long day in darkness. My sleep is broken and unrefreshing. My dreams are invaded by oxygen flow meters, masks, monitors, and breathless patients. I am tired, but that word is inadequate to describe the omnipresent fatigue that seeps into every cell of my body through the day, and which sleep fails to banish.


But there is hope. There is always hope. And right now it’s name is mutual aid.

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An Unexpected Death

Death is part of life in hospital. Indeed, half of all deaths in England occur in these hives of activity, where we help many to evade the end for a little longer  [1]. Death is such a frequent part of our work in fact, that it can become routine. Last week a man died before we got to see him on our morning ward round. He died some time between having his breakfast and the 9am observations round. He was old, had been unwell for a long time, and his death was expected, although no-one predicted it would be that morning. It caused hardly a ripple. Nurses, doctors and physiotherapists exchanged surprised glances, then shrugged and immediately focused their attention on their next tasks. His death became an admin task, as the junior doctors planned when they would find the time to complete his death certificate, discharge summary, and paperwork for our departmental morbidity and mortality meeting.

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At the margins

There is a great tradition of healthcare professionals working as volunteers, both at home and abroad, and this is highlighted and celebrated by the BMA Doctors as Volunteers competition. I entered a poster this year, and was very pleased to be chosen as one of the two winners. Euston foodbank, where I volunteer, will be putting the £850 prize money to good use, ensuring our foodbank is welcoming, and purchasing essential equipment and stock.

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The professional is political

There is little hope in a recent piece on Respiratory Futures from Dr Phil Hammond. He paints a bleak picture of the NHS under the current Conservative government, and crystallises fears that many of us have that things will only get worse post-Brexit.

The NHS is more than a place we go to work: it is a community, a family. Attacks on our family feel personal and hurt deeply. What has disappointed me over the last few years is the lack of anger and action from our community. Doctors in particular seem to take pride in separating politics from professionalism. They refuse to speak up or get involved, maintaining a so called ‘neutral’ position.

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The Future is Red

I spoke to Marie Claire magazine about my vote, and my response to the election result. You can read the full article, including three other women’s responses, here. Below is my section of the article.

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In the company of death

The Huffington Post have published an article I wrote on art and death. The edited version can be seen here. The original blog follows.

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Time to Live

Last night I watched Time to Live from BBC2’s Life Stories series. Twelve people who have a terminal diagnosis share what they have learned about themselves and about life, knowing that it is short. They are people of all ages who have managed to find positives in their terminal prognosis and are making the most of the time they have left.

It is a fascinating, beautiful and uplifting, but also heartbreaking film. We can all learn something from these twelve people who live life with an intensity few of us experience, and who appreciate and celebrate the life they have.

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