Breathtaking review – a shockingly vivid picture of life as a doctor during Covid

<span>Overwhelming … Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking.</span><span>Photograph: ITV</span>
Overwhelming … Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking.Photograph: ITV

How do you write a convincing drama based on real-life events when so many of those events were utterly unbelievable? Especially given that they have become even more so since, as the knowledge of what was really going on has become more widespread – and, at times, even entered into the record of official inquiries?

Breathtaking is a three-part drama based on palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke’s book of the same name, adapted by her, Bodies and Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio plus actor Prasanna Puwanarajah (both former doctors). It tells the story of the first six months or so of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK as it unfolds in one hospital, concentrating on a small section of the frontline staff during the rapid, overwhelming, unprecedented and (as we now know, pretty much totally) unplanned-for events. They are seen largely through the eyes of consultant Abbey Henderson (Joanne Froggatt) as well as her increasingly exhausted team.

The missteps begin early, from the moment Abbey is being trial-fitted for the PPE that would become a rare sighting within days of the first wave of cases coming through the doors. The FFP3 masks are too big for narrow jaws. “Just lifesaving for men, then?” says Abby, resignedly. They have already run out of powered air respirators but she can buy one on Amazon if she likes – they’re about £300.

From there mount the impossible decisions, stresses, responsibilities, appalling shocks, plus derelictions of governmental and managerial duty (to which in later episodes can be added journalistic failures, too, as some newspapers fall eagerly on the message from on high that doctors are deliberately rationing care and not trying to save every patient). Instructions to “triple all the ventilated beds you have”, the bleeping sound of hospital oxygen supplies running low, the rules around who gets PPE and what kind becoming ever more stringent (with domestic and care staff making do with bin-bag aprons almost from the off), masks being donated by vets and builders, a delivery of visors made by local schoolchildren, the lack of tests and the lack of mandate for testing. And that is just in the first hour.

All of which gives a fine sense of the utter bewilderment and chaos at the time and how staff were left scrambling to deliver any kind of care. And that’s before you add the interweaving of footage underlining the chaos – Rishi Sunak advising that we all “eat out to help out”, as the ward fills with coughing, gasping patients, Boris Johnson boasting about shaking hands with Covid patients on a PR visit during a global pandemic, ministers insisting that there is plenty of PPE though there may be “differential deliveries” slowing the even distribution of the bounty.

Related: ‘I detest bullies’: Dr Rachel Clarke on Jeremy Hunt, government lies and the long legacy of Covid

What this litany of shameful failings and demonstrations of the consequences doesn’t allow for, however, is much time for anything other than simple outrage to form. Maybe that was the aim. Maybe that is enough. But, as the remaining episodes play out, it does start to give a slightly distancing, paint-by-numbers feel. Here is the beloved care worker, in her bin bag apron, sickening and dying despite all her colleagues sorrowing around the bedside. Here is the stroppy visitor who won’t wear a mask, and the doctor’s mother who believes Facebook conspiracy theories rather than her son. Here is the patient who dies because the ambulance crew without the correct PPE are not allowed to resuscitate him under the new guidelines. Here is the young doctor ground down by her experiences and likely to leave medicine as a result. And here are the doctors arguing over which patients are most likely to survive the treatments that cannot be provided for all. Rules are bent to allow a final visit to a dying mother from her children (excitedly dressed as unicorns in party dresses, in case the moment itself isn’t enough for you).

You can do more with much less, as Jack Thorne’s 2021 Help, set in a care home with Jodie Comer as the last carer standing, proved. By the end, despite great performances from the whole cast, Breathtaking feels more like a cathartic rush for the writers, rather than something that deepens our understanding of what doctors and patients – and to some extent what we all – went through.

• Breathtaking aired on ITV1 and is available on ITVX.