Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
13 May 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:49pm

Why everyone should watch the BBC’s Covid-19 special Hospital

These extraordinary films should win all the prizes, and everyone in Britain should have to watch them, by law.

By Rachel Cooke

How many minutes of Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19 (11 May, 9pm) did I watch before I began to cry? I’m not sure. Was it five, or ten? A man called Peter was the first (though not the last) to set me off: an 88-year-old father and grandfather, a husband of 60 years, a chemist turned inventor of liqueurs, whose family had come to Britain from Germany in the 1930s. I liked him so much: his straightforward, unsentimental manner; the gap between his front teeth; his thick, tousled hair, which stood up in humorous spikes about his head.

Peter was in the Royal Free Hospital in north London, struggling to breathe. He believed he’d caught Covid-19 at a dinner party, and you knew by the way that he spoke of this – even from behind his oxygen mask, he sounded wry – that he loved his life, and didn’t want much to leave it. But he’d also had the big conversation with his GP, and if things were going to get worse, he did not want to be resuscitated. As he waited, then, for his immune system either to fight off the virus, or to be overwhelmed by it, he showed no sign of fear. “One chews through one’s life,” he said, quietly. “So many good things. We’ve had a good run.” Oh, Peter – and Nancy, and Stanley, and Hussein. All of you. What a privilege to have been at your bedsides. For those of us who’ve been lucky, the pandemic has sometimes seemed rather distant, even a little abstract; it has gone on elsewhere. You, though, made it suddenly and intensely real.

If I sound mushy, I hardly care. These extraordinary films, executive produced by Lorraine Charker-Phillips, Simon Dickson and Jackie Waldock, should win all the prizes, and everyone in Britain should have to watch them, by law. The cameras were inside the Royal Free and Barnet hospitals from day one of lockdown – a remarkable thing in itself – and the result wasn’t only movingly human. I learned more about both the strain on the NHS and its staff, and about the virus itself, than I’ve done from any amount of reading or TV news. We have heard, for instance, a lot about the government’s failure to make sure hospitals have enough personal protective equipment. At the Royal Free, however, there were other, almost equally alarming shortages: of oxygen, and body bags. More than once, we listened as doctors rang patients’ families to give them the worst kind of news. Here was kindness and empathy. But here, too, was dread and a terrible sadness: heads in hands, hands across eyes, faces turned from the camera. Professor Alan Salama, having spoken to a wife he feared would soon be a widow, seemed almost to stagger as he walked away down a corridor; his day’s work had literally left him reeling.

How little doctors know about this new illness. “I’ve never done this before,” said Martin Birchall, a professor of laryngology, as he prepared to operate on Nancy, whose breathing tube had become stuck in her larynx. Nancy, he informed us, was the first patient in Britain to suffer Covid-related laryngitis, a condition involving ulcers (patients on ventilators are now being given narrower tubes). Sanjay Bhagani, a consultant in infectious diseases, was trialling remdesivir, a drug previously used on Ebola patients. He, like every doctor and nurse, spoke of how powerfully dispiriting it is to have to try to treat a condition for which, at present, there are no effective medicines – and how relatively unusual.

What has stayed with me, though, is the terrifying disjunction between a Covid patient’s outward appearance, and what may be going on inside his or her body. People often look, and feel, as though they’re improving. They ring their families and talk of going home. But their doctors, armed with X-rays and bitter experience, know better. The virus is like some unseen hand. It reaches out and it strangles; its deadly work is swift and, to the layman, too seemingly sudden to be fully expected. Perhaps this accounts for the unexpected disbelief I felt as the titles rolled. I could process just about everything except for the utterly preposterous fact – the words on my screen hit me like an insult – that, in the end, not everyone made it.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

Hospital 
BBC Two

Content from our partners
Why ports are the gateway to growth
We are living longer than our predecessors – policy must catch up
Getting Britain building

This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion