A Question of Kindness: A special report on nursing in the UK

Do nurses have time for compassion? Credit: Sven Hoppe/DPA/Press Association Images
  • What is compassion?

  • Where does it come from?

  • Are you born with it?

  • Can it be taught?

  • And - crucially - can you lose it?

In the wake of the Mid Staffs scandal, and the Francis Report that followed it, these are the questions facing those whose job it is to care.

Nurses have always been loved and revered in our society. Ever since the Lady with the Lamp - Florence Nightingale herself - created the template for the profession, we have expected them to embody perfection. Angels in crisp uniforms - patting hands and mopping fevered brows.

But the modern Health Service is putting nurses under pressure like never before. Their job has changed beyond recognition in the past 25 years, and some say compassion has become the casualty.

Here is the first in ITV News' series of three special reports:

The Francis Report identified a crisis and depicted a group of workers either unwilling or unable to respond to the needs of those in their care. But is that really the case beyond the now familiar failures at Stafford?

We asked ITV News viewers to send us their stories, and have been astonished by the response: Hundreds of emails telling of elderly parents ignored, unwashed, unfed. Food left out of the reach of those unable to feed themselves. Even sick babies' nappies left unchanged for hours.

They describe relatives afraid to leave their loved ones unattended on the wards, for fear of neglect. Above all, they depict a regime that left no time for simple acts of humanity, with nurses too busy to notice or care.

Of course, we had reports of exemplary nurses too - but these were all too often the minority. The good nurses, we were told again and again, were left to cope with the fallout from the bad practice elsewhere.

The poor nursing, it appeared, stemmed from an unwillingness to engage with the more fundamental aspects of nursing care. It became a familiar description: nurses unwilling to leave their stations, preferring to monitor machines rather than get their hands dirty.

Francis recommended that all prospective nurses spend a year doing auxiliary health work, starting at the lowest level of the caring ladder - washing, feeding, mopping up mess. The logic is that it would effectively weed out those too squeamish to carry out the most basic tasks before they progress to high level nursing degree courses.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) rejects the idea saying it would solve nothing, and might deter potential candidates. It is the wrong answer, they say, to the wrong question.

The RCN's Dr Peter Carter dismisses the accusation that modern nurses are too posh to wash and too clever to care. He describes a system where nurses are being put under intolerable pressure by healthcare trusts intent on cutting budgets and meeting targets.

The most experienced nurses are snowed under with paperwork, he says, leaving wards in the care of overstretched juniors and auxiliaries, with no time for the sort of simple humanity that we want and need.

How can a handful of young, inexperienced workers spoonfeed a ward of 35 elderly patients? Where is the time for individual care and concern in a system that leaves no slack in the perpetual cycle of 'patient in, patient out' and the battle to free up beds.

Emma Hargrave told ITV News that she feels the NHS let her and her son Ewan down Credit: Family/ITV News

In a series of three reports this week, we look at the state of modern nursing, under the heading 'A Question of Kindness'.

I speak to a young couple who felt their premature baby boy was terribly failed by the NHS. And a nurse of 25 years standing tells us the decline in the profession she chose at the age of four has almost broken her. It is a sobering view.

Read: NHS care: Was this baby let down by the health service?

In the final report, I spend time with nurses on an exemplary ward at London's University College Hospital, seeing care at its very best, and getting their insights into the challenges and rewards of modern nursing.

Compassion is certainly not dead, they say, but nurses need to be given the time to show it, and it seems that's a luxury too many simply don't have.