TopicsProfessional'We need to put our heads above the parapet'

‘We need to put our heads above the parapet’

CPHVA honorary vice-president Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu reveals what it was like to walk with the King and why CPs should start talking politics.

Although Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu has had a truly remarkable career, few of her vast array of achievements could have prepared her for being asked to carry the Sovereign’s Orb in the royal procession at King Charles III’s coronation in May. ‘It was amazing, absolutely amazing,’ says Elizabeth. ‘I keep using that word, but it’s the only word that describes it. The whole experience, from being contacted to then actually being involved in the procession, it was incredible.

One of the fantastic things about the coronation was the feedback I’ve had from nurses, community nurses, health visitors – they were so proud to see me representing them

‘I was six years old when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, and I was in a children’s home at the time. I think that little aspect of my story has had an impact on people. One of the fantastic things about King Charles’ coronation was the feedback that I have had from nurses, community nurses, health visitors – they were so proud to see me representing them there. It was a huge honour.’


Elizabeth’s connection to Unite-CPHVA members remains unbreakable after a professional life that has seen her go from being a 16-year-old school nurse assistant to a health visiting career to becoming an Emeritus Professor for Nursing. During the last 60 years, Elizabeth has made an enormous contribution to the health and wellbeing of multi-ethnic communities; created the first UK sickle-cell and thalassaemia counselling centre; founded the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at the University of West London; was made a dame in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to nursing and the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal; and in November 2022 was awarded the Order of Merit.

Although Elizabeth no longer practises, given that she has lived community nursing for so long and to such a high standard, her warnings carry a remarkable amount of weight.

‘I am actually very, very concerned,’ she says. ‘The NHS is having to catch up with the huge trauma that the country went through during the pandemic, and that is having an impact on NHS staff. But when it comes to community nursing, I don’t feel we can just blame Covid as things weren’t looking good before the pandemic. I don’t think I am being too melodramatic when I say it seems like some aspects of community nursing – especially school nursing and health visiting – just seem to be deteriorating, though through no fault of their own.

‘Reflecting on times during my own career, it was only after there had been terrible safeguarding issues that hit the press, that the gaps in services started to be plugged. My worry is that there could well be a series of scandals leading to a big inquiry and only then will the situation improve.

‘I don’t want that, but I believe things are at breaking point,’ she continues. ‘So, it’s either that or those who have control of resources in government wake up and realise that they are putting our children in a huge amount of danger now and in the future if we don’t start getting this patched up.’


Quite aside from the pandemic, Elizabeth highlights a fact that CPs know well – the demands placed on HVs, school nurses, community nursery nurses and all CPs are greater than ever.

‘If I think about what an HV has to be aware of now, compared to what I had to be aware of back in the 1970s, you need a greater amount of education today,’ Elizabeth says. As well as the need to fix workforce shortages, HVs need to be given more tools to help families in ways they would like and are trained to deliver: ‘I can remember some families that I visited, back in the 1970s in Brent in north west London, who were in extreme poverty. But, looking back, there were actually more resources that I could turn to or which I could signpost families to.

‘Now, I’m actually quite anxious for staff who are frustrated and demoralised because they can’t fulfil their role in the same way, and I am also particularly worried for the children and those people who rely on CPs.

‘The HV is a vital safety net for such families, and members of Unite-CPHVA are doing a fantastic job right now, in often quite difficult circumstances.’


The unique and inspiring personal story that has formed Elizabeth’s character is beautifully depicted in her memoirs, Dreams from My Mother. Despite her incredible achievements, success has had little effect on Elizabeth’s down-to-earth nature. ‘Please, it’s just Elizabeth,’ she says when you first address her as Dame.

How do you relax? ‘I like walking and, in fact, I like walking even more since the pandemic because it was about the only exercise that we were allowed.’

Favourite pastimes? ‘I really love music and I’m very nosey about people, so I was a big fan of [BBC Radio 4’s] Desert Island Discs before I had the honour of going on it myself. I also discovered podcasts around the time of Covid. I’m really into true crime and also podcasts that analyse big social issues.’

Who’s your number one? ‘Of course, friends and family come first. My daughter and granddaughter live in Wales – we speak every day, and we visit and go on holidays together. And with friends, I like laughing, I love food, and I love dancing.’

Biggest lesson learned ‘That it WAS possible for myself and like-minded colleagues in the NHS to overcome challenges and develop improved services for people with sickle cell disease.’


As well as those with the purse strings doing the right thing, one imperative, Elizabeth believes, lies closer to home. And that’s for community practitioners to follow the example of other public sector workers and start to arrange themselves more politically. ‘Take an active interest in your union, write to your MP, spread the word about the vital work you do’, she suggests.

‘I know there are efforts being made to publicise what is happening, but I don’t know if people up and down the country understand the impact that CPs make in terms of improving the lives of children, or the fact that there are fewer and fewer community nursing staff with ever rising caseloads, and more children in need,’ Elizabeth says.

‘I think CPs, if they don’t want to go under, have got to start fighting. Everybody has an MP, and a lot of MPs and their families have been on the receiving end of CP services. If we can get them and celebrities onboard to spread the word about what people like school nurses and HVs do, the public will better understand the importance of CPs.’

Looking back, there were more resources that I could turn to or signpost families to. Now, I’m anxious for staff who are frustrated and demoralised

Her concluding words? ‘Of course, it’s all very well for me as an armchair observer, and I remember what it was like for me when I was working full-time – and I was a single mother – it is no joke to be asking a profession that is on its knees to be political. But I think we have to be a bit more radical – that’s the bottom line. That’s something I and others had to do when we demanded better sickle cell services in the past. We just need to put our heads above the parapet.’


Elizabeth has experienced first-hand the power of celebrity in raising awareness

At the 2021 Brit Awards, Elizabeth was named by pop sensation Dua Lipa as the ‘best British female of the year’. Elizabeth explains: ‘A friend rang me on the night of the Brits. I was watching television, but not the awards. My friend said, “Dua Lipa has just given you a shout out and you’re getting a Brit Award”. Winners received two trophies – their main statuette and a secondary award, to honour someone else worthy of recognition. ‘It’s actually standing on my windowsill right now,’ reveals Elizabeth.

A roar of approval from all the key workers

‘The award came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned. I love Dua Lipa’s songs, and I was absolutely not expecting that. But it was probably because I’d been asked about the clapping for healthcare workers during the pandemic. I’d said claps are all very well, but they don’t pay your mortgage or your rent. Dua Lipa picked up on that. The Brit Awards ceremony was the first event at the O2 following the pandemic and a whole heap of key workers had been invited to be in the audience, so when she made that statement, there was a roar of approval from everybody there.’ It brought the work of Elizabeth and colleagues to the attention of an entirely new audience.

Image credit | Alamy


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