Leading intensive care doctors have told NHS staff not to blame people breaching lockdown rules for hospitals coming close to breaking point and for the death toll from Covid nearing 100,000.
Dr Alison Pittard and Dr Daniele Bryden chided health workers for posting messages saying things like those flouting Covid rules have “blood on their hands” and should “f**k off”.
Pittard and Bryden have become prominent during the pandemic as the dean and vice dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, which represents the UK’s 3,500 doctors who work in intensive care units and who are treating the sickest Covid patients.
Their intervention, in an article for the Observer, has sparked a row within the medical profession. Some doctors backed their stance, but others said NHS staff who are “on their knees” from tackling the pandemic were within their rights to vent their anger.
They write: “A troubling narrative now appears to have crept into some reporting of intensive care bed shortages – blame the public.
“Social and conventional media is awash with comments from exhausted and understandably frustrated fellow healthcare workers who suggest individuals may have ‘blood on their hands’ or need to ‘f**k off’.” While such sentiments are easy to understand, given the huge pressure staff are under, it is unfair to “blame breaches of lockdown rules for the spike in hospitalisations and deaths” seen in the ongoing second wave, they say.
Blaming defiance of lockdown rules also overlooks the key socio-economic factors behind Britain’s pandemic, such as deprivation, poor housing and ethnicity, the medics add.
“In desperation, it is tempting to seek to apportion blame when all apparent previous exhortations have failed, but this is too easy and too simplistic.
“In doing so, we run the risk of feeding the trolls who call us liars when we show the harsh realities of intensive care treatment in a pandemic and losing the goodwill of those trying their best to comply,” they say.
In an example of blaming the public for patients dying, Professor Richard Schilling, a leading cardiologist at an NHS hospital in London, tweeted recently his view that: “Joining the chain of death should have the same social stigma as drunk driving. One good reason: my wife [also a doctor] and I have seen pregnant women in different hospitals dying of Covid with teams standing by to cut the baby out post-mortem. Good enough?”
Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, which represents hospital doctors, said NHS personnel were right to criticise people for rule-breaking.
“NHS staff are on their knees and, along with the public, share a mood of frustration, fear and at times anger.
“Seeing individuals flouting the social distancing guidance makes both staff and rule-abiding members of the public angry and many feel sympathy with the views expressed by some on social media. Expressing these views may or may not be right but they are entirely understandable,” Goddard said.
But Dr John Chisholm, chair of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee, backed Pittard and Bryden. He cited poor communication by ministers around on/off limitations on everyday life as a key reason for the recent surge in hospitalisations.
“Rather than blame the public, we should focus on how the timing and communication of restrictions have contributed to the current situation, as well as an undeveloped test and trace system,” he said.
“We are also dealing with a variant that makes the virus more transmissible, which is especially dangerous for those living in areas of social deprivation where the infection spreads more easily. Fundamentally, however, it is chronic underfunding and lack of resources in the NHS that are driving staff to breaking point – not the public, who are doing everything they can to prevent our beloved health service from going under.”
This weekend, the government launched a hard-hitting new multimedia advertising campaign to try to persuade the public to abide by the lockdown in order to help beleaguered NHS staff. It seeks to prick people’s consciences by asking: “Can you look them in the eyes and tell them you’re helping by staying at home?”