“In healthcare we take away the emotion of what we do. We have to be very clinical about things, but something about a tune and the emotion of people singing really stirs the heartstrings and draws people together.”
One Sunday in October 2015, Ashling Lillis headed to a London pub after spotting a call out on social media. Two friends, Georgina Wood and Julia Patterson, had organised a meeting on a Facebook group for junior doctors. They both had an idea of how they could get a message out to the public to show what was happening to the National Health Service (NHS).
This was just as the junior doctors’ contract row was reaching boiling point. NHS professionals were poised for strike action in protest against contract changes, which the British Medical Association argued could see junior doctors suffer a 15% pay cut.Five weeks later, Ashling found herself, along with Georgina and Julia, in a recording studio with 50 other NHS workers in front of top vocal coach Mark De-Lisser from BBC’s ‘The Voice’. The group, calling themselves the National Health Singers, had set out to protest against the contract, as well as NHS cuts and privatisation by swapping stethoscopes for microphones.
Ashling, who works at Homerton University Hospital in Hackney, told the IPF:
“The whole idea at that point was perhaps we’ll sing a song, perhaps we’ll do something that we can get recorded and share with people.”
Whilst Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was locked in battle with the BMA over the contract, the National Health Singers were on strike outside hospitals up and down the country singing to draw attention to their campaign for a fairer deal for junior doctors.
Love song about the NHS
The group had put together a song called ‘Yours’, an anthem to unite the public with its rousing verses proclaiming “don’t let your junior docs, be worked around the clock”, complete with a music video showing them getting hugs from the public out on the streets.
Now the singers have their sights firmly set on chart success with their upcoming single ‘Lost Without You’, a love song about the NHS. The song is written about the experiences of not just the doctors on the front line of the health service, but also from the perspective of the choir’s family members and the public’s experience of the NHS. It’s also intended to draw on the wider problems facing the public sector, including cuts to nursing bursaries.
“When we sang ‘Yours’ last year, the story and the lyrics were very powerfully coming from the junior doctors. But what we’ve experienced is the wider story with what’s going on in the UK especially with austerity and how those cuts are affecting the most vulnerable people in the country.”
The singers have branched out in recent months and it’s not just junior doctors who are singing to save their organisation anymore. Other NHS professionals including psychologists, managers and nurses are now joining in the singing.
With the launch of their crowdfunding campaign, the National Health Singers are looking for help get their latest single professionally recorded and produced as well as promoted. Currently they have set a £2,000 target to help with the promotional campaign, with any future record sales set to go to medical charities.They have already had a help in hand from Hollywood actor Michael Sheen who recorded an introductory video to their single ‘Yours’. Last year, the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir got to Christmas number 1 with their song ‘A Bridge Over You’, beating Justin Bieber to the festive top spot. For the National Health Singers, music really is the message.
“In healthcare we take away the emotion of what we do,” said Ashling. “We have to be very clinical about things but something about a tune and the emotion of people singing, really stirs the heartstrings and draws people together. There was a day we were on strike and we stood on Whitehall singing with 10,000 junior doctors.”
“That feeling of drawing together and singing a song as part of one voice was so much more powerful than shouting, screaming and protesting.”
Junior doctors strike action
With junior doctors ready for more strike action in September, it’s possible that the debate over contracts could continue for some time.“I don’t know what the Department of Health and Jeremy Hunt’s overall plan is for the NHS, but his behaviour over the last eight months would suggest that he’s not fully behind a NHS that’s free at the point of service and that the narrative of the junior doctors is just one part of it,” added Ashling. “He’s coming after quite a lot of services and trying to perhaps offer the more lucrative bits to some healthcare providers that aren’t within the NHS.”
“I believe we have the strength as a group of people to fight for a safer contract. I do still have hope. If I didn’t have hope I wouldn’t go out on strike.”