Breathtaking on ITV: this searing drama about the NHS during Covid should be compulsory viewing

ITV is on something of a roll at the moment. Fresh from the success of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, their camera lenses are now turning to the medical sector for their newest show – no doubt to the dismay of NHS England.

With good reason. Breathtaking is the story of life in a London hospital during the worst public health crisis in recent memory. From start to end, this three-part series is a litany of disasters – and though it lacks a clear call to action in the same way that Mr Bates does, it is no less infuriating to watch. It’s impossible to look away; in fact, it should be compulsory viewing.

Joanne Froggatt (magnificent) is Dr Abbey Henderson, a consultant in acute medicine. One day, she notices patients are starting to turn up with a mysterious illness – it’s a trickle that quickly becomes a flood. But the official advice is dismissive: don’t worry. No need for a lockdown.

Written by no less than three doctors (current and former), including Jed Mercurio, creator of Line of Duty and set over the course of the pandemic, it isn’t afraid to depict just how dire things get in the wards, dragging us down into the trenches with it as nurses intubate patients, call families to tell them their loved ones have died and attend funerals for their colleagues via Zoom.

Knowing what we do now, it’s rather like watching a car crash in slow motion. There were no Covid tests, or vaccines. Not enough ventilators. Not enough PPE. Not enough guidance from Public Health England. It’s crushing stuff.

At the start of the outbreak, Abbey’s colleague Ant Vyas (Bhav Joshi) is refused a facemask, despite going into an isolated room to treat a critically ill patient. “It’s not policy,” he’s told, again and again: the patient hasn’t come from abroad, so of course it can’t be Covid. Twenty minutes later, we see the ward nurses (one of whom later dies from the virus herself) fashioning makeshift PPE for themselves out of bin bags. And this is all before the first lockdown.

Georgia Goodman as Divina (ITV)
Georgia Goodman as Divina (ITV)

The show also pulls no punches when it comes to politics. With the National Covid Inquiry in full flow, how could Breathtaking not be political? Clips of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Jenny Harries (as well as Dominic Cummings) offering updates on the pandemic are slotted between scenes of doctors crying in corridors or telling a critically ill patient they can’t perform surgery because there aren’t enough beds in the ITU.

The writers even manage to shoehorn in a slightly unnecessary political awakening of sorts for Abbey, who ends up breaking NHS rules to go on the record about the state of the hospital she works in, at risk to her own job: “the NHS eats whistleblowers alive. Don't go there,” she is ominously warned.

At the end of episode two, Froggatt’s exhausted Abbey looks out of the hospital windows at people standing on their front doors to applaud the NHS (remember that?). Seen through her eyes, it’s striking how ridiculous the gesture seems – and how cowardly the politicians who kept insisting everything was under control, even when it so clearly wasn’t.

Still, bad as things get, there are flashes of humanity here, too. A doctor plays the violin for an elderly patient – once a violinist – who is now dying of Covid. A cancer patient who is finally given the all-clear is wheeled out of the hospital through an honour guard of cheering medical staff. It’s a lovely reminder of the human side to the NHS, and the people trying to make it a better place. It’s something that is still worth fighting for; here’s hoping this drama can play a part.

Breathtaking is streaming now on ITVX