“If people clapped for us now, excuse my language but I would probably just tell them to fuck off,” said the exhausted junior doctor facing January in Britain on an overcrowded intensive care unit. “The majority of people, even people I know who are supposed to be sensible, are all doing things they shouldn’t be and still bubbling with their 80-year-old mother. It feels like almost everyone is breaking the rules in a dangerous way.”
The doctor, who asked not to be named, was training in a hospital in the West Midlands. Like many medics she said she felt increasingly frustrated at the behaviour of people who might have applauded the NHS on their doorsteps in the spring. It had been a hard year watching patients struggle for breath and, ultimately, life.
“It’s not just elderly people, but people in their 50s, people in their 30s with no comorbidities, who haven’t made it,” she said. ‘“We’ve had two pregnant women in ICU. We had one couple come in, neither were that old but both very ill, and I had to tell one of them that their partner had died. It has been really tough.”
The West Midlands, like much of England, is now in tier 4, the highest level of coronavirus restrictions. Yet outside the hospital, she said, too many people were behaving recklessly.
“I cannot go to the shops because it makes me so upset and so angry. I needed milk the other day and I didn’t get it because I couldn’t face going into the shop near me – seeing people without masks on and with their masks around their chins just drives me mad. It feels like a complete slap in the face.”
In London, Hugh Montgomery, a professor who works in intensive care at the Whittington hospital in London, went further. Anyone not social distancing or following the rules had “blood on their hands”, he said.
He told BBC 5 live: “They are spreading this virus. Other people will spread it and people will die. They won’t know they have killed people, but they have.”
In Greater Manchester, also in tier 4, hospital admissions for Covid are creeping back up again. At one emergency department this Thursday a woman in her 90s was admitted. “She’d caught Covid from her family on Christmas Day,” said a consultant, who added that she feared her hospital could be overwhelmed within a few weeks.
Although hospitals in the north-west of England were not yet under the same pressure as their London counterparts, ward space was already running out, said the consultant. Ambulances are backing up, corridors are filling with patients on trolleys and it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate Covid cases from people with other illnesses.
“Our greatest fear is we will become overwhelmed,” the consultant said. “At the moment we are treating everybody. It might not be in the safest, most socially distant way, but if you come in with a serious problem you will be treated and it will be fine, though a few people might get Covid. But it’s getting to the stage where if we have a massive influx of Covid patients our ability to manage that is going to be really seriously compromised.”
The consultant said she did not mind that people were no longer out on their doorsteps clapping every Thursday to show support for the NHS, but wished they would think more about how their behaviour could affect others.
“People don’t realise or maybe care that what they do as an individual, the risks they are prepared to take, doesn’t just affect them – they think ‘well, it’s up to me’. But they might be asymptomatic and could give it to somebody who could die.”
On Wednesday, she said, she had ducked into a hairdresser for a trim before the shutters came down under tier 4, and was horrified to see how many people were bending the rules. “There were two places doing takeaway food and drink and they were basically running an outdoor bar. It seemed to me everyone where I live was going there, buying alcohol and having a night out. I had to fight my way past literally 15 people, all outside the door of the hairdressers, all without masks on because they were drinking. I was thinking, are you crazy?”
She added: “It might feel nice now but it’s just not caring. I try not to say anything because people are already on edge, but it’s so frustrating. These are people who really should know better.”