Rage, relief and recognition: the TV version of my book Breathtaking has opened a floodgate

<span>‘We were determined to show the public what staff really experienced behind closed hospital doors.’ Joanne Froggatt as Dr Abbey Henderson in Breathtaking.</span><span>Photograph: Chris Barr/ITV</span>
‘We were determined to show the public what staff really experienced behind closed hospital doors.’ Joanne Froggatt as Dr Abbey Henderson in Breathtaking.Photograph: Chris Barr/ITV

Three days before the first national lockdown, in March 2020, the then deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, looked us all in the eye and denied that there were any national problems with supplying personal protective equipment (PPE). While admitting to “some differential deliveries in some areas”, the second most senior doctor in the country confidently asserted to the press gathered at the daily pandemic briefing that such problems had been “completely resolved” and that “the country has a perfectly adequate supply of personal protective equipment at the moment”. For frontline staff, including me, it was a jaw-drop awful moment.

Perhaps Harries – since made a dame and the CEO of the new UK Health Security Agency – sincerely believed she was performing a public service in reassuring an anxious nation, as opposed to helping the government spin its way out of a growing scandal. But we – the staff whose necks were on the line – knew precisely how wrong her claims were. Up and down the country, staff were scrambling pitifully for PPE. Some of them resorted to wearing bin liners, or visors made by local Scout groups, or masks dropped off by building firms and veterinary practices.

In some hospitals, the doctors and nurses working in supposedly Covid-free zones were ordered to remove what little PPE they’d managed to cobble together so as not to “frighten” the patients. In others, staff who tried to speak out about PPE shortages on social media were threatened and gagged by their trusts. “If we hear of these concerns going outside these four walls, your career and your position here will be untenable,” one doctor described being told by managers. A mere two days after lockdown began, Dr Habib Zaidi, a GP from Essex, became the first UK doctor to die of Covid.

I was called ‘lying murdering scum’ and ‘a government shill on a mass euthanasia programme’

It was all, quite frankly, disgusting. At the time, it made you feel alone, very small and very much expendable. It ultimately moved me to write a book about the experience, which has since been turned into a three-part ITV series, Breathtaking, written by myself with Jed Mercurio and Prasanna Puwanarajah. We were determined to show the public what staff really experienced behind closed hospital doors as authentically as possible. Never, though, in my wildest dreams did I expect the reaction that followed.

For frontline staff, in particular, it’s as though we’ve opened a floodgate through which the rage, relief and recognition have poured out. “A sickeningly accurate portrayal. I’m caught somewhere between shouting and weeping,” tweeted one doctor. From a speech and language therapist: “I was redeployed in April 2020 to ITU. I have PTSD and have had to rebuild myself completely. I was hooked last night. I watched them all. I felt like someone was telling MY story, and I needed people to hear it.” From a nurse: “I wore goggles from my kid’s science kit. A colleague stitched some hats together for us. PPE was so sparse it was locked in a cupboard and we had to argue for it. Thank you.”

Of course, the Covid deniers were galvanised too. Alongside the usual flurry of death threats, I was called “lying murdering scum”, “a morally repugnant psychopath” and “a government shill on a mass euthanasia programme”. The abusive rants were telling. This was performative vitriol from those on a mission to misinform, who found themselves unable to control the narrative.

Related: No sympathy for striking doctors? Watch ITV’s Breathtaking and ask: have we paid our debt to them? | Gaby Hinsliff

The pandemic always was – and remains to this day – a bear pit of contested narratives. In response to questions from the media this week about Breathtaking, for example, the Department of Health and Social Care issued a statement asserting that: “Throughout the pandemic the government acted to … prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.” This oft-repeated lie about the NHS having been protected by Boris Johnson’s government is perhaps the most egregious of all. The terrible truth for patients and staff was that, at times of peak Covid pressure, NHS standards of care were savaged. Just read this tweet from a paramedic who watched the series, and imagine yourself, like him, on the end of a telephone, being forced to bear witness to pure unfolding horror: “I worked as a clinician in ambulance control over the Covid period. Listening to patients breathing their last with no ambulances to send was dreadful, and haunted me.”

All of this poses uncomfortable questions about the role of NHS England in facilitating the government’s pandemic narratives. You expect politicians to dissemble, but the NHS is meant to have a statutory duty of candour. So how could some of its most senior figures have stood up and denied the self-evident PPE shortages and the traumatising breakdowns of normal care?

This week, in response to the series, NHS England linked staff to a range of support services in a tweet that read: “During the Covid-19 pandemic NHS staff faced an extraordinary difficult challenge. If you work in the NHS and found tonight’s episode of #Breathtaking particularly tough or triggering, there is support available.” The only problem? The dedicated NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs to which the tweet directed staff had their funding cut in early 2023. Almost half have since closed. I suppose they were judged too costly to maintain for NHS staff who were so evidently, from the outset, expendable.

Breathtaking is available to stream on ITVX now