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Angela Tilby: Emotion is best vented off camera

29 January 2021


A nurse treats a patient in the intensive care unit in St George’s Hospital, in south London, this month

A nurse treats a patient in the intensive care unit in St George’s Hospital, in south London, this month

AS IN the first lockdown, television news has taken us into ICU wards and shown distressing pictures of desperately ill patients and the doctors and nurses trying to care for them. This is, I think, justifiable. We need to know how serious the situation is. I can also understand the point of harrowing interviews with bereaved relatives and with those who are recovering after being critically ill. They speak with the authority of an experience that is, mercifully, over. It’s good, too, to hear from a range of medical and scientific experts, to realise that there is no single, simple answer to the pandemic.

But there is a line to draw at which media engagement is damaging both to those of us who watch and to those who take part. I am referring to interviews with ICU doctors and nurses at the end of long shifts, when they are physically, mentally, and emotionally worn out, and so prone to give vent to their feelings.

It is not surprising that key medical staff feel angry and despairing, but I am not sure that the place to discharge such emotions is in front of the camera. As a viewer, it leaves you helpless in the face of other people’s emotional overload. The despair is passed on, generating guilt. None of this is helpful at a time when what is most needed is a strengthening of morale, a determination to see this through.

Interviewing harassed health-care workers at their most vulnerable is also deeply unfair to them in the long term. When you have exposed your sorrow and anger on television, it never goes away. It becomes part of your external and internal life, defining you long after the event. The fact that, after the visit of the cameras, you showered, slept, and got up the next day, greeted your colleagues, and went out to face hell on the wards once again is denied by the lasting image of you weeping in your scrubs. Both pictures are true, but the one that has been recorded is the one that you are stuck with.

I suspect that these harassed individuals are persuaded to go on by the media, perhaps by their bosses, to warn people about the risks, as though the spread of the pandemic were all our fault. There are the deniers, of course, and the selfish, but most people are trying their best. The real problem is the paradoxical and disturbing message that the NHS is actually more important than the lives that it is trying to save.

I have always felt uneasy by the order of “Protect the NHS. Save lives”. It is possible to be deeply grateful to hospital staff while recognising that the NHS is a monster, endlessly manipulated by politicians; badly organised, poorly run, and with a savage blame culture. I am uneasy that vulnerable health workers are being used to emote on its behalf.

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