Breathtaking's depiction of NHS staff deaths from Covid is meant to bring 'justice'

Breathtaking (ITV)
Breathtaking's second episode depicts an NHS staff member dying after contracting Covid-19 while working on the frontline. (ITV)

ITV's new drama Breathtaking holds up a mirror up to society to show the mistakes that were made during the Covid pandemic and how they led to the deaths of several NHS staff and healthcare workers who were on the frontline.

Dr Rachel Clarke hopes the three-part series will bring "justice" to the family members of those who lost their lives during the pandemic, and that those frontline staff who survived the experience "feel seen" onscreen for the first time. The show does this by depicting two NHS staff members contracting Covid after working with patients who had undiagnosed symptoms, one of whom later loses her life as a result.

"We had a guiding principle from the moment Jed [Mercurio], Prasanna [Puwanarajah] and I first talked about the series, and that was simply this: Everything that the public is going to see on screen, it has to be true," Clarke said at a press conference for the show. "It has to have happened in some shape or form to a real patient, to a real doctor, to a real nurse.

LVIV, UKRAINE - OCTOBER 7: Rachel Clarke attends a public discussion
Dr Rachel Clarke hopes the three-part series will bring "justice" to the family members of those who lost their lives during the pandemic. (Getty Images)

"We will disguise it, there will be composite cases, but it has to be true so that the public can trust us and they can know that every single scene that they watch has unfolded for real inside those closed hospital doors. If we were true to that then every member of the NHS who watched, we hoped, would come away thinking, 'yes, that's me. I'm seeing myself on screen and I know, finally, that someone is telling my story'.

"It upsets me to think about this, but if the family, or friends, or colleagues of some of those dead members of staff watch the series and think that we have done [them] justice then we've achieved everything we set out to."

Read more: Breathtaking's Dr Rachel Clarke 'burned with rage' over Tories' Covid response

Clarke used her own experience and "interviewed colleagues, patients and members of their families, loved ones who had been bereaved or who had followed the patient through to recovery and leaving the hospital" for her memoir Breathtaking, which in turn inspired the show's depiction of events.

When writing the scripts, Clarke, Mercurio and Puwanarajah worked alongside doctors and medical staff currently working in the NHS, meeting with support groups and sharing ideas and scripts in order to bring even more of an authenticity to the ITV drama.

TOPSHOT - A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry shows Britain's former Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, in west London, on December 6, 2023 to give evidence. Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson will face tough questioning at a public inquiry on December 6, 2023 over his government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, after a barrage of criticism from his former aides. Johnson, who has been accused of indecisiveness and a lack of scientific understanding, is expected to admit that he
Rachel Clarke criticised politicians like Prime Minister Boris Johnson for saying during the pandemic that the supply of PPE was better than it was, and continuing to claim this in the Covid-19 inquiry. (Getty Images)

"The principle that drove us was, in addition to 'it has to be true', anybody watching this, whether a patient, a relative or a member staff, it has to ring true to their experience," Clarke added. "We want them to watch it and nothing to leap out as inaccurate, exaggerated at all. It has to have the absolute ring of authenticity, whatever perspective you're watching it from, and I very much hope we've achieved that."

Clarke went on to say that "every single person" she has met who works in hospitals and intensive care has at one point or another cared for "at least one, probably multiple, members of staff who we are pretty certain caught their Covid while at work in the same environments we're working in [and] subsequently were cared for by their colleagues until they died."

"It feels so wrong that the person who is dying in your intensive care is dying because of the choices they made to try and stop other people dying, they chose to go to work and put themselves in the line of fire —not bullets but particles— because of a virus that could kill them," she admitted.

"The thing that feels unbearable and I know continues to feel unbearable to this day, is when the public narrative diverges from the reality," Clarke goes on, criticising politicians for saying during the pandemic that things like the supply of PPE was better than it was.

Breathtaking (ITV)
Rachel Clarke said 'if the family, or friends, or colleagues of some of those dead members of staff watch the series and think that we have done [them] justice then we've achieved everything we set out to.' (ITV)

When speaking with Yahoo about the series, star Joanne Froggatt adds to Clarke's sentiment, saying she hopes the show's acknowledgment of the challenges they went through will go a long way.

Read more: Joanne Froggatt urges government to be 'honest' about Covid mistakes

She explained: "Imagine if you've done all that and you were one of those people that worked in the hospitals as a cleaner, as a porter, as an HCA, as a doctor, nurse, and you were watching the news [where politicians are] going 'oh no, this isn't really happening. Everything is fine, the PPE's fine, it's all fine, testing is fine.' Imagine how angering and insignificant that must make you feel?

"I think just to have acknowledgement from the government of the things they could have, and should have, done differently, and that can be done differently should there be next time is just hugely important."

Breathtaking is airing as a three-night event until Wednesday, 21 February, and it will be available to stream on ITVX.

Watch the trailer for Breathtaking: