Rachel Clarke: ‘NHS staff are burning with frustration and grief at this second wave’

The palliative care doctor and author on a year of Covid in UK hospitals and her hopes for the vaccine

You wrote Breathtaking towards the start of the pandemic when you couldn’t sleep. Did you envisage that the world would still be looking the way it does almost a year later?
No, I truly did not. I started writing the book as a forlorn kind of nocturnal therapy at a time when cases were going down, it was midsummer, there was hope and optimism in the air. And although I was sure there would be a resurgence, never for one second did I imagine this, with the deaths worse than they have ever been. It’s just shattering.

How does what you are seeing inside hospitals today differ from what you saw last spring?
In the first wave, the NHS threw all it had at trying to manage Covid, so everything else shut down. This time, the NHS has been desperately trying to catch up on all the other non-Covid activity that was suspended, so staff have gone into the second wave already exhausted. Many staff are suffering from clinical depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve seen colleagues break down in tears in the hospital. We are also seeing younger patients, which is shocking. The most soul-destroying aspect of this second wave is to a very large extent this could have been prevented. Staff are just burning with frustration and grief.

Are you hopeful that the vaccine is going to be a gamechanger?
I am ecstatic that we have a highly effective, safe vaccine. I am clinging on to the hope that it gives us with my teeth, nails, toes, hands – everything I have.

You write warmly in your book about the weekly Clap for Our Carers that took place in the first lockdown, yet recently you tweeted that you would not welcome it back. Why?
In the first wave those claps, for me, were absolutely enchanting because they were eruptions of spontaneous gratitude and appreciation. It was frightening going to work in the first wave. It meant everything to know that your neighbours were saying thank you. It gave us a little bit of steel in our spines. This time around I really, strongly did not want applause because I felt that lovely community spirit was to some extent co-opted and exploited by the government and Boris Johnson, who stood on the steps of No 10 and applauded us knowing that he and his colleagues had voted against a pay rise for nurses two years previously. Their rhetoric around NHS heroes has worn thin.

What do you foresee happening in the weeks and months ahead?
The past two weeks have shown what may prove to be the tiniest shoots of hope and evidence that the combination of the lockdown and the vaccine rollout is beginning to work. What would be tragic is if the government assumes the vaccine is a magic bullet and does not work proactively at the longer-term measures that are essential to have this virus properly under control, such as a completely functional test and trace system and a proper mechanism to support people financially to stay at home and isolate.

You write in the book about how upset your daughter was with you last spring for doing such a dangerous job. How are the children feeling about it now?
In that magnificent way that children have they are completely bored with Covid and utterly blasé about it. Having been very anxious and frightened in the beginning, my kids are, like the rest of the population, sick to the back teeth of Covid and oblivious to what Mum is doing in the hospital and I cannot tell you how delighted that makes me.

  • Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Lisa O'Kelly

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