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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Understanding the value of selflessness in the Coronavirus crisis

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Coronavirus, Nolan Principles

With its remit across public life, the Committee is maintaining a close watch on standards issues arising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recognising the unique and unprecedented nature of the challenge for the public sector, continuing to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life is vital to maintaining trust in government and our institutions throughout this crisis. In a series of blogs, the Committee will discuss the relevance of these principles to the current crisis. We are not considering the government’s practical response to the crisis, e.g. the availability of PPE or length of lockdown, but rather monitoring any impact on standards and the Nolan Principles.

In this blog, independent member of the Committee, Dame Shirley Pearce, discusses the value of selflessness and the demands made on public sector workers during the Coronavirus crisis.

Computer generated image of a virus superimposed on top of a world map and the words 'covid 19 coronavirus'. At the bottom of the image are the words 'coronavirus and public standards'

The Nolan Principle of Selflessness asks that those engaged in public roles act solely in the public interest. This means placing the needs of the public ahead of their own personal needs and progression.

It is a challenging principle at the best of times since we all, naturally, tend to be motivated by our own needs and those of our families. And at a time when we are all stretched by the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges to the principle of selflessness are particularly great.

We work to satisfy many complex needs. At the simplest transactional level, we work to earn money to enable us and our families to thrive and progress in the world.

But financial reward is not the only factor that determines how and where we work. Most people try to choose areas of work that also meet their psychological and social as well as financial needs. The ability to provide services that improve the lives of others is often a powerful motivator for those who work in the public sector. So selflessness makes good sense to most public office holders and can even provide reward in itself.

But it isn’t always easy. The principle of selflessness addresses the potential conflict between the benefit to the provider and the recipient of the public sector service.

It requires that at all times those providing public sector services should not allow their own interests and advantages to influence how they respond.  The needs of the recipient and their formal entitlements should be what determines the intervention and action of the provider. Public sector roles vary in the extent to which discretion can be used in the interactions and outcomes post holders can deliver to their clients. Social security decisions for example are constrained by rules and rights. Those in health and social care management may be more nuanced and an individual’s decision can influence the outcomes more directly.

This principle has been uniquely tested in the current pandemic. We have seen NHS staff asked to take on high risk roles and retrain to play a role in the front line. In considering how to respond to this demand, staff have had to balance the risks of becoming ill themselves with the need to provide an effective service to their patients. Those who have agreed to be part of the front line have provided the ultimate example of selflessness, putting the needs of their patients above their own personal well-being. And those who have contracted the virus as part of their work and have died so tragically have paid the ultimate price of selflessness. The concept of what is a reasonable level of selflessness in life and death situations has been brought to the fore in the COVID-19 crisis. We do expect staff to go the extra mile in a crisis, but most in health and social care did not see their lives as under threat before now. What is reasonable for us to expect?  We do not, for example, expect benefits staff to hand over their own money, but we do expect nurses to work an extra shift.

Senior staff have a particular responsibility in this crisis to ensure that the demands on their staff do not go beyond the expectations of their contract or profession and that their staff are properly supported and protected to take on new responsibilities.

For example, the initial shortage of PPE created ethical tensions we would not normally expect as staff had to determine their response to working with suboptimal protection. There is no right or wrong in these situations and each person should be respected for the way they have, individually decided to respond to this extreme challenge to their selflessness. But they and we need to be sure that they have not done so because they have been pressured or bullied.

Amongst care workers we have seen examples of those who have moved into care homes with their residents so that the risk of the virus entering the home is reduced. In so doing they have put their own fate into the same place as the residents and, showing extreme levels of selflessness, have put the needs of the residents above those of their own family. Whilst we honour those who have made the extreme sacrifice, we must also be clear that it is not something that is legitimate for us to expect. If there is no alternative, then we should deeply regret that we expect it, and we should give serious consideration to how we acknowledge people’s sacrifice and how to learn lessons to avoid asking it of others in the future.

Selflessness does not just happen in extreme situations such as the pandemic. Selflessness forms part of daily life of effective public sector workers and is something that we all should value and support, but not rely on or exploit, as we work our way out of this crisis.

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