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

The ITV drama begins tonight on ITV1

Breathtaking (ITV)
Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking, ITV's new drama about what happened in hospitals during the Covid pandemic. (ITV)

Dr Rachel Clarke is sharing her and her fellow NHS workers' experience during the Covid pandemic in ITV's new drama Breathtaking because she felt it was her "duty as a doctor" to do so, especially after being left "burning with rage" over the Tory government's response to the crisis in 2020.

Speaking at a press conference about sharing the reality of what happened in hospitals for her memoir and the series, Clarke said she felt the lack of transparency by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his fellow Tory ministers, advisers, and NHS England over what was happening was "grotesque".

Clarke began writing her memoir "not for public consumption" but to wile away the hours she couldn't sleep because she suffered with insomnia. She said: "After a while, I felt as though actually this was a record, this was my experience, this was testimony about something that mattered, and there was a turning point for me, which was May 2020.

LVIV, UKRAINE - OCTOBER 7: Rachel Clarke attends a public discussion
Dr Rachel Clarke, who co-wrote the series and whose memoir served as inspiration for it, said she felt the lack of transparency by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the government was "grotesque". (Getty Images)

"We got past the first wave and the story broke that Dominic Cummings had tested his eyesight by heading off to Barnard Castle and I watched that press conference in the Rose Garden, and I watched the Prime Minister defend his man to the hill. I just, at that stage, burned with rage because in contrast to that clear and obvious breaking of the rules I had seen members of the public go through hell, obeying the rules.

"They respected the rules, they did not see their loved ones in hospital, they were not there when their loved one died. They endured a funeral via zoom, not in person. They went through these incredible privations with such decency and dignity because they wanted to stop others dying from this terrible illness, and so I felt as though in that moment that was just the best and the worst of Britain's response to the pandemic."

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25: Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings makes a statement inside 10 Downing Street on May 25, 2020 in London, England. On March 31st 2020 Downing Street confirmed to journalists that Dominic Cummings was self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms at his home in North London. Durham police have confirmed that he was actually hundreds of miles away at his parent's house in the city. (Photo by Jonathan Brady-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Rachel Clarke said she 'burned with rage' after seeing the statement Dominic Cummings gave in the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street after breaking lockdown rules. (Getty Images)

Clarke, who works in palliative care, co-wrote the three-part series with former doctors turned TV writers Jed Mercurio and Prasanna Puwanarajah. The trio made it their mission to delve into the harsh reality that NHS workers faced before lockdown, during it, and after, so that the public would understand what it was really like for them.

Clarke went on: "I felt so angry on behalf of the public, the people who were dying, the people who were suffering as their loved ones died by obeying the rules that I felt: 'No, I want to get this out there. I want this story to be out there. I want people to read it because this is true and it's happening now and it's being denied by the government'.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 03: British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to attend Prime Ministers Questions at the Houses of Parliament on June 3, 2020 in London, England. Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to the prime minister, came under scrutiny after allegedly breaching lockdown rules and subsequently having to issue a statement to the British public from the garden of Downing Street. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Rachel Clarke said she found it 'grotesque' when then Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed the UK's coronavirus response was better than others, and that hospitals weren't overwhelmed. (Getty Images)

"By that stage we had had Boris Johnson tell the nation that not only had the NHS not been overwhelmed and our response had been a success, in fact it had been so much better than other countries like Italy, and I thought that was grotesque.

"So I had this sort of burning sense of duty, the NHS is meant to have a duty of candour from the bottom to the top, and I wanted to express mine and I wanted to get it to the public and being able to do that again with the drama almost felt like an imperative part of my duty as a doctor."

The ITV series stars Joanne Froggatt as fictional doctor Abbey Henderson, who is representative of a number of NHS workers, including Clarke. The show airs on ITV over three nights, and each episode examines what was happening in the news in real time alongside its dramatised moments.

Breathtaking (ITV)
The ITV series stars Joanne Froggatt as fictional doctor Abbey Henderson, who is representative of a number of NHS workers, including Clarke. (ITV)

This includes the depiction of members of NHS staff contracting Covid after seeing patients with undiagnosed symptoms. Reflecting on what this was like to experience in real time, Clarke said: "Every single person I know in the health service has, if they work in a hospital [and] intensive care, has ended up caring 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.

"Subsequently were cared for by their colleagues until they died, and of course that is the most harrowing thing to go through and 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.

"I think the thing that makes it bearable, the thing that gets you through it is is talking to your team, your colleagues about it. The thing that feels unbearable and I know continues to feel unbearable to this day, is when the public narrative diverges from the reality. So it's one thing to have a member of your hospital dying of Covid in intensive care. That's hard, but you can grit your teeth, we all made the same choices.

Breathtaking (ITV)
Rachel Clarke also said it was 'intolerable' that the government lied to the public during the pandemic about conditions in hospitals, by suggesting things were better than they were. (ITV)

"What is intolerable is having to turn on your television and hear Matt Hancock, or Boris Johnson, or Jenny Harries from Public Health England stating categorically that there were no problems with PPE when every single person who worked in Covid knows that's a downright lie, and that those narratives are still now being repeated to the actual national Covid inquiry just takes my breath away."

Clarke adds: "It almost feels like sacrilege, how dare a politician claim the NHS as heroes on the one hand because they think it might make them popular with the public to do so, while simultaneously lying about the fact that NHS and care workers have died because they didn't have proper PPE.

"Surely the first thing you need to do in a pandemic is be honest with each other, be honest with the population because you don't get through a pandemic as individuals, you get through it together. You have to trust each other, you have to trust the government that's leading you and you can't do that if the government's lying."

Breathtaking premieres on ITV1 on Monday, 19 February at 9pm, and it will continue to air over three consecutive nights.

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