Tear-jerking scene in ITVs new three-part Covid drama Breathtaking shows patient being left to die in the back of an ambulance because pandemic-era rules stopped paramedics from doing CPR

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  • ITV’s drama lays bare the horrors seen by NHS staff during Covid’s darkest days 
  • It is adapted from a book authored by palliative care doctor Dr Rachel Clarke 

A tear-jerking scene in ITV’s new three-part Covid drama shows a patient being left to die in an ambulance.

Pandemic-era rules – illustrated in tonight’s 9pm episode of Breathtaking – stopped medics in some trusts from performing CPR without adequate PPE. 

As a result of the red tape, the man was left untreated for 20 minutes in the back of an ambulance as he arrived at the hospital.  

Rushed by paramedics who need to return to the roads, Dr Abbey Henderson, played by Downton Abbey star Joanna Froggatt, fights back tears as she declares the patient dead before walking back to her Covid ward, as an acute medicine consultant. 

Writers of ITV’s next masterpiece think their creation — based on real experiences of frontline medics — could unleash the same national outcry as Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

Pandemic-era rules – illustrated in tonight’s 9pm episode of Breathtaking – stopped medics in some trusts from performing CPR without adequate PPE. As a result of the red tape, the man was left untreated for 20 minutes in the back of an ambulance as he arrived at the hospital. Rushed by paramedics who need to return to the roads, Dr Abbey Henderson, played by Downton Abbey star Joanna Froggatt, fights back tears as she declares the patient dead before walking back to her Covid ward, as an acute medicine consultant 

Tonight's opener, called Containment , covers the three critical weeks leading up to the original March 2020 lockdown . Picking up on March 3, the drama follows Dr Henderson's department operating in a cold zone ¿ thought to be low risk zones with no Covid patients

Tonight’s opener, called Containment , covers the three critical weeks leading up to the original March 2020 lockdown . Picking up on March 3, the drama follows Dr Henderson’s department operating in a cold zone – thought to be low risk zones with no Covid patients 

Elsewhere, issues with PPE see medics unable to treat patients battling respiratory illnesses with sufficient protection. Abiding by strict Public Health England (PHE) guidelines means other suspected cold zone patients cannot be tested for the virus, leaving them unable to access potentially lifesaving treatments and exposing the virus to the ward

Elsewhere, issues with PPE see medics unable to treat patients battling respiratory illnesses with sufficient protection. Abiding by strict Public Health England (PHE) guidelines means other suspected cold zone patients cannot be tested for the virus, leaving them unable to access potentially lifesaving treatments and exposing the virus to the ward

Some of the scenes were so harrowing that Froggatt even cried after reading the script.   

Breathtaking’s plot all happens through the fictional Dr Henderson’s eyes at one unnamed city hospital in England.  

Tonight’s opener, called Containment, covers the three critical weeks leading up to the original March 2020 lockdown.

Picking up on March 3, the drama follows Dr Henderson’s department operating in a cold zone – thought to be low risk zones with no Covid patients.

It receives its first patient infected with the virus, a man picked up by medics in hazmat suits directly from Heathrow Airport.

Elsewhere, issues with PPE see medics unable to treat patients battling respiratory illnesses with sufficient protection. 

Dr Henderson fails her PPE safety test as it has been designed for a man. In the background, a colleague remarks she can buy her own equipment on Amazon for in excess of £300.

Nurses begin fashioning their own from bin bags while schoolkids send in homemade visors to the hospital. 

Abiding by strict Public Health England (PHE) guidelines means other suspected cold zone patients cannot be tested for the virus, leaving them unable to access potentially lifesaving treatments and exposing the virus to the ward. 

As the situation darkens, archival footage of ex-health secretary Matt Hancock and former deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries are heard boasting about the UK’s ‘clear plan’ to tackle Covid and adequate stocks of PPE. 

Clips of ex-PM Boris Johnson also show him talking about shaking hands with Covid patients. 

At the time, the global death toll had already exceeded 3,100 and the UK stood at 51 confirmed cases.

Time stamps logged throughout the episode show just how quickly the situation — and PHE guidance — changed. 

Hospital staff speak to Italian colleagues who hospitals have already been devastated by the virus. 

The virus had already spread to more than half of Italy’s 20 regions, including Tuscany and Sicily, with cases exceeding 2.500. More than a dozen towns were already also under lockdown. 

Just one day later, its Government would announce all schools and universities were to close. 

Meanwhile, as the hospital runs dangerously close to running out of oxygen, medics are forced to prevent visits from friends and family members to patients on their deathbeds. 

As the situation darkens, archival footage of ex-health secretary Matt Hancock and former deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries are heard boasting about the UK's 'clear plan' to tackle Covid and adequate stocks of PPE

As the situation darkens, archival footage of ex-health secretary Matt Hancock and former deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries are heard boasting about the UK’s ‘clear plan’ to tackle Covid and adequate stocks of PPE

Dr Henderson fails her PPE safety test as it has been designed for a man. In the background, a colleague remarks she can buy her own equipment on Amazon for in excess of £300. Nurses begin fashioning their own from bin bags while schoolkids send in homemade visors to the hospital

Dr Henderson fails her PPE safety test as it has been designed for a man. In the background, a colleague remarks she can buy her own equipment on Amazon for in excess of £300. Nurses begin fashioning their own from bin bags while schoolkids send in homemade visors to the hospital 

Time stamps logged throughout the episode show just how quickly the situation ¿ and PHE guidance ¿ changed. Hospital staff speak to Italian colleagues who hospitals have already been devastated by the virus

Time stamps logged throughout the episode show just how quickly the situation — and PHE guidance — changed. Hospital staff speak to Italian colleagues who hospitals have already been devastated by the virus 

‘It was never out of my mind that every scenario we were filming was based on a real scenario,’ Froggatt said in the run-up to the release of the episode. 

‘Every patient character is based on a real person and their real family and their real loved ones.

‘All of the actors and crew were constantly asking the real doctors and nurses “How did you do this?”

People were doing four hours at a time in ITU in full PPE which is hot. And proning patients — moving patients from their back to their front — which is very hard work.

In real life you can’t go to the loo, you can’t sip water or have a snack. Once you’re in that PPE you can’t let anything in,’ she added.

‘I can’t really comprehend how difficult it must have been to do it for real.’ 

Breathtaking is adapted from a memoir of the same name, authored by NHS palliative care doctor Dr Rachel Clarke.

It is co-written with Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio and Prasanna Puwanarajah, best known as an actor, most recently as Martin Bashir in The Crown. Both are also former doctors.

Clarke said their rule while writing was to put nothing in the script that didn’t happen somewhere in real life. 

It is not the only drama to touch on the subject of how Britain was hit by Covid and the failures that ensued to helping protect those in healthcare.

In 2021, Channel 4 drama Help, which starred Jodie Comer, saw her act as a care worker in a fictional Liverpool care home to shine a light on the traumas faced during the pandemic. 

Breathtaking is adapted from a memoir of the same name, authored by NHS palliative care doctor Dr Rachel Clarke. Pictured, Dr Clarke appearing on Lorraine today

Breathtaking is adapted from a memoir of the same name, authored by NHS palliative care doctor Dr Rachel Clarke. Pictured, Dr Clarke appearing on Lorraine today 

Prasanna Puwanarajah, who played journalist Martin Bashir in the season 5 on Netflix's royal drama 'The Crown' is another writer behind Breathtaking. Pictured here in London in November 2022.

Prasanna Puwanarajah, who played journalist Martin Bashir in the season 5 on Netflix’s royal drama ‘The Crown’ is another writer behind Breathtaking. Pictured here in London in November 2022. 

Writer, Jed Mercurio of Line of Duty fame, said Breathtaking followed a similar theme of the standards we expect in those who hold public office. Here Mercurio is pictured receiving his OBE medal in February 2022

Writer, Jed Mercurio of Line of Duty fame, said Breathtaking followed a similar theme of the standards we expect in those who hold public office. Here Mercurio is pictured receiving his OBE medal in February 2022

The four-part series 'Mr Bates vs The Post Office' tells the story of a long-running campaign to expose the Horizon IT system scandal, in which hundreds of Post Office staff were wrongfully accused of theft and fraud (L-R: Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne Sercombe, Toby Jones as Alan Bates, Monica Dolan as Jo Hamilton and Asif Khan as Mohammad Sabir)

The four-part series ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ tells the story of a long-running campaign to expose the Horizon IT system scandal, in which hundreds of Post Office staff were wrongfully accused of theft and fraud (L-R: Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne Sercombe, Toby Jones as Alan Bates, Monica Dolan as Jo Hamilton and Asif Khan as Mohammad Sabir)

What is most important to Clarke, in bringing Breathtaking to the small screen, is making sure NHS staff impacted by Covid ‘feel seen’.  

She said: ‘One of the main themes of the drama is truth telling and the matter of whose story, whose truth is heard and whose story is silenced.

‘So, the entire unfolding of the story inside the hospital is one that has not been told very loudly on a public stage. 

‘I wanted to address that gulf between the Government’s public narrative of Covid and the unfolding reality within the NHS because partly that gulf has a huge human impact. 

She added: ‘I hope that when NHS staff watch the series they feel seen. I hope they’ll think: “That’s me, that’s what I went through. That is my testimony and now the public knows what it was like.”‘

Breathtaking airs on ITV1 tonight at 9pm.  

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