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The question marks over Doctor Breathtaking


AFTER the almost universal adulatory reviews from TV critics for the ‘gritty’ and ‘harrowing’ hospital drama Breathtaking, about the first six months of the Covid outbreak, plus an admonition from the Evening Standard that it should be made compulsory viewing, comes a refreshing corrective from Daily Mail writer Andrew Pierce.

The headline in Saturday’s paper (behind a paywall) said: ‘How the holier-than-thou doctor behind ITV’s new Covid drama is a Tory-hating activist who doesn’t always get her facts right’. The article went on to enumerate the ‘facts’ that writer and doctor Rachel Clarke, on whose 2021 memoir the series was based, doesn’t always get right.

For those who had not heard of 52-year-old Dr Clarke before this three-part drama aired, including me, here are a few biographical details. Whether or not they are ‘facts’ may be open to question. She says she comes from a family of doctors and read PPE at Oxford. After that she became a high-profile TV documentary maker but gave it all up to take science A-levels in her late 20s to gain entry to medical school. In 2003, at the age of 29, she started studying for a medical degree at University College London, transferring to Oxford two years later to complete her medical studies. She qualified as a doctor in 2009. Dr Clarke was a driving force behind the junior doctors’ strike in 2016 and has in recent years specialised in palliative care.

A few Google searches reveal that she is a vocal left-wing activist who during the early days of Covid was a ferocious campaigner for harder, stricter lockdowns and compulsory mask-wearing. This drew an anguished response from cartoonist Bob Moran, whose severely disabled eight-year-old daughter nearly died from being deprived of medical care during lockdown and could not understand why people were wearing masks and distancing themselves from her.

He wrote an angry, if ill-advised, tweet in September 2021 saying that Dr Clarke should be ‘verbally abused’ for the harm she has caused. Dr Clarke was quick to reply with her own tweet: ‘Why do you employ a man who openly abuses NHS staff, Telegraph?’ She reported Bob to the police and the Telegraph sacked their cartoonist, even though he apologised to Dr Clarke.  While admitting that his tweet was out of order, Bob said that lockdown, and other measures implemented to try to control a virus which poses no threat to children, have been devastating.  

As regards Rachel Clarke, as well as being a caring doctor, she is also a prolific writer and TV personality. Thanks perhaps to her dual talents, interviewers in every branch of the media have accorded her the kind of reverential attention usually reserved for royalty and world spiritual leaders. She was described by the Guardian as ‘one of the best doctor writers to emerge within a rich new scene’. Because, as well as working with patients who have very, very grave and serious things wrong with them (her words), Dr Clarke writes regularly for the Guardian, New York TimesNew Statesman and BMJ as well as frequently appearing on TV and radio. She has also written three books billed as Sunday Times bestsellers, with a fourth due out later this year. One wonders when she finds the time to attend to her gravely ill patients.

So what about the facts that are ‘not quite right’? Doubts were first raised on her claimed credentials by Miriam Finch, who writes a Substack called Informed Consent Matters under the name Miri AF.  In an open letter to various health professionals, Miri points out anomalies in the TV doctor’s apparent qualifications. It is not possible, she says, to transfer to Oxford after two years at another medical college, as Oxford does not accept such students. You would have to start from scratch, and this would mean that Dr Clarke qualified in 2011, not 2009.  Miri adds, though, that it is well-nigh impossible for lay people to verify academic claims made by doctors. It is also possible that an exception was made for Dr Clarke.

However this is one aspect which has been taken up by a number of people including James Delingpole, who asked: Who is she? Dr Clarke replied in one of her endless tweets: ‘Who am I, James? It’s such a tantalizing question. If only there were written sources that could shed light on the sinister mystery.’ Dr Clarke is not above sarcastic putdowns, then. Many of her 217,000 adoring followers rubbished Delingpole as a ‘nobody’ while praising Dr Clarke to the skies.

The Mail’s Andrew Pierce queries other claims made by Dr Clarke. In a recent Guardian interview with Zoe Williams, Dr Clarke said she was ‘the first medical student to have a baby while studying at Oxford’. Now I know for a fact that this is not true as my university flatmate, also a medical student, had a baby while studying for her degree. Then a Daily Mail reader wrote in to say that female medical students at his university 50 years ago were regularly giving birth while studying, and nobody thought this was anything odd.

But, Pierce adds, ‘A fondness for hyperbole is typical of Clarke’s decidedly partisan worldview.’

During the recent doctors’ strikes, Dr Clarke repeatedly stated that a junior doctor’s starting pay is £14.09 per hour, about the same as a shelf-filler at a supermarket. Yet Full Fact has roundly dismissed this figure, pointing out that even the lowest-ranked junior doctors earn more than this.

When it came to Brexit, she called for a second referendum, maintaining that one-third of NHS beds at her hospital had been closed due to our exit from the EU. Yet this remark was made before Britain had actually left. She also stated, in a 2018 interview with Victoria Derbyshire, that a third of in-patient beds had to be closed because ‘some of our very best European nurses from Italy, Portugal, Spain, have already gone back home because they have been made to feel so unwelcome and so unwanted post-Brexit’. This was not matched, Pierce points out, ‘by any meaningful results’.

Dr Clarke has stated that she began working in palliative care, firstly at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and later the Horton General Hospital in Banbury. But she is not registered to either of these hospitals, and the Katharine House Hospice in Oxfordshire, where she supposedly also worked, refused to confirm this to Pierce with the remark: ‘We can’t say anything about that.’ According to the Daily Mail preview of the series on Monday February 19, Dr Clarke was working in a big city hospital during the early days of the pandemic.

Er . . . which big city hospital, exactly?

More recently, when Sir Keir Starmer falsely accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of making transphobic jokes in the Commons, Dr Clarke wrote: ‘To make transphobic jokes in Parliament is bad enough. To make them in front of the grieving mother of a child murdered in a transphobic attack is absolutely reprehensible. Shame on Sunak.’  The fact that Esther Ghey, the mother of the murdered teenager Brianna Ghey, was not in the House at the time, was a minor detail.  But never let the facts . . .

The TV drama certainly laid it on thick. The heroic female doctor, played by Joanne Froggatt, wore not only a mask but a visor as well as a stethoscope round her neck, reminiscent of the 1950s Doctor films starring Dirk Bogarde. When she removed the mask, her face was disfigured with mask lines.  The make-up department certainly went to town, making her look haggard and with stringy unwashed hair to complete the image of the saintly medic working under almost impossible conditions to the detriment of her wellbeing and her own family.

But was the series, intended to tug at our heartstrings, accurate? Many doctors and nurses working in hospitals during the early days of covid say no, that it was, rather, a shameless piece of propaganda and only marginally based on what was actually happening. The supposed overwhelming of NHS hospitals and services was, they say, vastly exaggerated.

For Times TV critic Hugo Rifkind, though, writing with the headline ‘Take your medicine – watch this Covid drama’ it ‘oozed bleak authenticity’ and the real villains all along were the covid deniers.

Does he mean those of us who have doggedly tried to get at the truth, rather than supinely believing every word of an overheated television drama and a publicity-hungry doctor?

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Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson is an author and journalist.

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