Breathtaking and the struggle for Covid safety

ITV's 'Breathtaking' writes Joseph Healy, offers a gut-wrenching portrayal of both the selfless heroism of NHS staff and the shocking indifference of a government that failed them during the COVID-19 crisis. This gripping drama underscores not only the devastating impact of the pandemic but also the ongoing struggle for public health against a virus that continues to pose a serious threat.


The drama currently screening on ITV, based on the book by Dr Rachel Clarke, who served on the Covid wards during the first and second waves of the pandemic, is breathtaking in several different ways. Clearly the title is based on the awful breathlessness which Covid patients suffered from as their lungs were systematically destroyed by the virus. However, it could also be applied to the herculean efforts of NHS staff but equally as well to the hypocrisy of the government and its henchpersons in the bureaucracy, of which more anon.

The drama is set in a fictitious hospital and the unfolding horror is told from the perspective of a doctor, Abbey Henderson, who starts by working with non Covid patients but as the number of Covid patients soar, is drafted on to the Covid frontlne as many were. Some of the scenes in this will be familiar with anyone who watched the news at the time, such as the recovered patient being wheeled down the corridor to cheers from the nursing staff but others will not have been witnessed. This is because cameras were not allowed into the wards themselves and I remember seeing health correspondents masked up and standing outside the doors of the wards. The NHS staff working on the frontline knew that it was very dangerous but also dangerous for their loved ones and this is one of the main themes of the drama, as Abbey tries to ensure that her partner and children are not infected, even having to stay in hotel accommodation rather than endanger them. The resultant mental and emotional strain that this put on relationships is well portrayed.

The two main themes running through the drama, one positive and the other negative, is the love and support which NHS staff tried to provide for those dying on the wards counterposed with the indifference to their plight from those who were supposed to be directing things, i.e. the government and hospital management. There is a truly touching scene and I remember reading about this, where an elderly couple both dying of the virus, were allowed to have their beds together so that they could hold hands in their final hours.

The drama is intercut with scenes from news broadcasts where Johnson, Hancock and others assure the public that all is well and my particular bette noire, Professor Jenny Harries, telling reporters that there was no shortage of PPE as the drama demonstrates that this was not the case as staff desperately hunt for bin bags and masks donated by local vets. The bureaucratic arrogance and lack of concern is also highlighted in one of the most scandalous aspects of the pandemic, where patients with Covid were sent in their hundreds to care homes where they infected thousands leading to carnage. This is well portrayed where a young doctor questions the policy and when Dr Henderson questions the CEO of the Trust is told that they have their instructions from the Dept of Health and that they need the beds. This is exactly what Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary, revealed to the Covid Inquiry that the reason they were shipped off to the care homes was to free up beds and that the “ring of steel” which he had assured the public had been thrown around care homes was entirely fictitious!

The storyline follows the period of the first and second waves and deals brilliantly with the notorious Xmas period of 2020 where government inaction and concentration on the economy meant that more people died than in the first wave! This is dealt well when a young man whose parents are on the ward dying of the virus, laments that he was responsible for their deaths but Abbey replies that it was not his fault and that the government had gaslit him and the public.

Breathtaking was a vitally necessary drama to make to illustrate how much we owe to the heroes of the NHS but also how much the Tory government contributed to the deaths of over 230,000 people by their refusal to face the truth and their hypocrisy of which Eat Out to Help Out was a classic case. Only today on Good Morning Britain Dr Clarke has spoken about how many of these staff are still traumatised and sufferning from PTSD yet the government have cut the budget for mental health counselling in the NHS.

Still from the ITV drama Breathtaking

Just as relevant as the events of 2020-21 are the continuing struggles to protect against Covid which is still causing huge problems with more than I million having Long Covid and the increasing number of people who are long term sick. The same government that presided over the disaster shown in Breathtaking are now doing nothing to protect the health of the public and continuing to gaslight them. Dr Clarke has pointed out that nursing staff and doctors dealing with Covid patients are still issued the standard surgical mask which offers no protection.

One of the biggest issues which emerged in the drama was the National Guidelines, which Abbey and others pointed out were not fit for purpose. These are the guidelines still being used by hospital trusts which mean that there is no proper masking in hospitals for staff or patients and no proper ventilation. On Monday last a group of Covid organisations demonstrated outside St Thomas’s hospital about this and called for clean air and proper ventilation. Some of these groups represented people living with Long Covid and the clinically vulnerable, many of whom are still shielding.

Clean air and ventilation are one of the main ways that the virus can be defeated and the WHO has made clear that we are still in it and that governments have a responsibility to act. This point is being hammered home by a new campaigning group of performers, aware that many performers are now suffering from Long Covid, due to lack of clean air in venues. The group is called Heart of the Arts and took their campaign to the BAFTAS this week where they distributed Covid ribbons outside, similar to the AIDS ribbons of the 1990s which were also displayed at the BAFTAS.

The virus is still prevalent and more than 350 per week are still dying of it. It also has long term consequences and has rightly been called a mass disabling event. Breathtaking showed the lies which the Tories used and Jenny Harries is now in charge of public health! The series shines a light on the dreadful events of 4 years ago but is also a wakeup call that we must continue to fight both to save the NHS but also to ensure a safer world, in healthcare, schools and workplaces. The virus has not gone away and is still a clear and present danger ignored by an uncaring and mendacious government.

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Joseph Healy is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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