BBC's Covid-19 reporters: 'I wanted to show the reality but was deeply troubled by what I saw’

Fergus Walsh and Hugh Pym’s reports from the frontline of beleaguered British hospitals are drawing nightly audiences of around 12.8 million

When it comes to epidemics, Fergus Walsh, the BBC’s medical correspondent for the past 14 years, is something of a veteran. “I reported from Vietnam in 2005 on H5N1 bird flu,” he says. “Then, in 2009, we had H1N1 swine flu. That disease killed a lot of people, but it also turned out to be comparatively mild. Though there had been concern that the next big pandemic was coming, swine flu lulled a lot of the world into a false sense of security. Still, the warning signs have been there for a long time: we also had Sars [in 2002-04] and Mers [first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012], two other coronaviruses.”

Thanks to this, when he first saw the images coming out of Wuhan in January, alarm bells rang. “And from then on, it has been non-stop: just more and more intense.”

Walsh, speaking from his home in Windsor, looks pale and rather drawn – though no one looks healthy on Zoom. This morning he will edit a report from a Surrey hospital. It’s a laborious process: his cameraman is in Brighton, his producer is in London; they must work remotely. Later, he’ll head to Broadcasting House so he can be in the BBC studio for the evening news programmes: “The days tend to be long and relentless, if I’m honest.”

Is the coronavirus pandemic the biggest story he has ever covered? “Yes, by far, and I feel a huge sense of responsibility to get the tone right, the messaging right, and to show people the reality of what’s going on in our hospitals.”

BBC television reporters Hugh Pym and Fergus Walsh at Broadcasting House in London on Friday.
BBC television reporters Hugh Pym and Fergus Walsh at Broadcasting House in London on Friday. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Since mid-March, the BBC has seen a huge increase in numbers watching its news programmes. The audience for the BBC News at One has risen 85%, the News at Six 74%, and the News at Ten of by 50%. The evening news programmes, and the two on which Walsh and his colleague Hugh Pym, the BBC’s health editor, appear most often, now have a combined nightly audience of around 12.8 million – and no wonder. It isn’t only that audiences are hungry for information. Between them, Walsh and Pym, together with their producers and cameramen, are delivering powerful journalism: most notably their reports from inside intensive care units at, respectively, University College Hospital in London and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

“I’d been trying to get access to an ICU for some weeks,” says Walsh. “A lot of the coverage was coming out of the 5pm press conference. I felt we had to get back to the reality of what the virus can do. I was trying very hard to persuade people to let me in. There were good reasons why they weren’t, but in the end it came down to a question of trust. I’ve been doing this job a long time, and I’ve built up a level of trust. I know a lot of the team at UCH – and they felt very strongly that they wanted people to see what they were having to cope with, the better to reinforce the stay-at-home messaging.”

Staff at UCH have since told him that they have been contacted by hospitals from across the country expressing gratitude that the reports went out.

What was filming in such circumstances like? “It has left a deep impression on me. I’ve reported from all over the world on some very tough medical conditions. But nothing has affected me like this. There were moments when I was deeply troubled by what I was seeing. I walked into an operating theatre that had been repurposed to house two intensive care beds. That theatre looks over the Euston Road, and being there really affected me: the stark contrast between the relative normality of life outside, and what was happening inside. I thought: people just don’t realise.

“In the ICU, a patient needed to be turned on their front. There were eight staff, all in full PPE, very delicately turning this patient. It took a long time, and they were so gentle. I still find that very affecting even now. It haunts me, and [this has given me a sense of] how profoundly staff have been affected. They’re not able to save a lot of those patients. They don’t have a drug that will make them better. But they do what they can. What I’m doing is nothing – nothing – compared to what they’re doing. They are simply amazing.”

He and Pym (who’s also talking to me via Zoom, and who have known each other since they trained together in Falmouth) are aware of the criticism journalists are getting on social media for their coverage of the crisis: a perceived lack of tenaciousness at the government’s daily press conference; talk of NHS heroism that obscures the reality of government failure.

“Given the technology [thanks to social distancing, journalists now attend remotely] the press conferences have been tricky,” says Pym. “People say: why didn’t you follow up? But until they started allowing follow-up questions, that was difficult. The government side has offered us the chance to do filming on testing or drug trials, but it’s so fast-moving: the communications team, civil servants and ministers are under huge pressure.”

A critically ill patient in the intensive care unit at University College Hospital in London.
A critically ill patient in the intensive care unit at University College Hospital in London. Photograph: BBC

Has he been leant on? Asked to tell the story in a certain way? “I wouldn’t say there has been any leaning. We could have had more access – that’s why Fergus’s reports [from UCH] were so important. There is a disconnect between what officials think is good for the media, and what hospital staff and journalists want to do.”

In terms of tone, it’s more difficult. “You know some people feel you haven’t got it right,” he says. “And you know yourself you don’t always get it right. You can only do your best.”

Walsh is aware that his tone has shifted over the weeks. “Early on, I tried not to alarm people: coronavirus is mild for most. I emphasised that 99 out of 100 people will survive it. But when millions of people are affected, the small minority who die becomes a huge number. The tone has had to change. When it comes to language, I agonise over every sentence I write. I have used military metaphors. I do think we are in a war against the virus; the ICUs are the frontline in that war. But I don’t think fights should be assigned to people. If someone dies, they haven’t lost a battle, they’ve been killed by a disease.”

Where will the story go next? Looking ahead, what’s of most concern? For Pym, it’s a question of what the NHS will look like after we pass the peak. “How long will critical care beds need to be available? How long can staff keep going at this level? When can the service get back to routine operations?”

What about Walsh? He sounds more grave. “No country in the world has an exit strategy yet. I’m concerned about what the next year will bring. The only real exit strategy involves a vaccine, and though we may get small doses this year, in terms of mass production there’s unlikely to be anything for 18 months.

“Additionally, a lot of vaccines are not completely effective in older people, whose immune system response tends to be lower – so you can’t protect the people most at risk. There seem to be only bad options in terms of how we get out of this. A price will have to be paid. I don’t have very optimistic things to say to you. We’re in for a very difficult time. Restrictions may have to continue for the next 12 months.”

Is the story taking its toll on them? How do they take a break? “I do have days off,” says Pym. “But at home, inevitably, you look at your phone. I play backgammon with my son. I watch old sporting highlights. We eat family meals altogether. It’s a simpler life.”

Walsh is with his wife and son. “I try to sit in the garden occasionally, and switch off,” he says. “But the news: its daily pattern, the papers, the briefing. Even when I’m not working, that takes up half the day. I find it difficult to switch off.

‘I worry a lot about what’s happening: the impact on families, the number of people who’ve died. I know that when I broadcast next, there will be people tuning in who have just found out that a relative has gone into intensive care, or who has died.”

He smiles. “But I’m fine, honestly. The BBC has a crucial role to play in terms of public broadcasting. Being part of that is a privilege.”


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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