Dr Mark Honigsbaum discusses the new episode of his ‘Going Viral’ podcast, produced with support from City’s Department of Journalism
It’s been an extraordinary year for health and science reporters. From the moment it became clear in March 2020 that Covid-19 risked overwhelming the NHS, the coronavirus has rarely been out of the news.
But amid conflicting scientific claims about the virus and the NHS’s preparedness for a pandemic, reporting the facts about the unfolding health crisis and the ‘truth’ of the story has been far from straightforward.
In a special episode of Going Viral titled ‘Reporting Covid’ – hosted by the Department of Journalism at City, University of London – three leading health and science journalists talk frankly about the challenges of “following the science” when the science itself is in dispute and their frustrations with NHS England over gaining access to intensive care wards to speak to consultants and describe the pressures on the NHS.
According to Sarah Boseley, The Guardian’s long-serving Health Editor, the government’s insistence on channelling inquiries through the Department of Health and Social Care and Downing Street amounted to a form of “state control”.
Boseley said: “I was saying right from the beginning that we’re not doing actually what the World Health Organization said we should do and there’s no reason why not.”
Victoria Macdonald, the Health and Social Care editor at Channel 4 concurs, saying that NHS England maintained an “iron grip on access” to wards with critically ill patients – a decision that helped fuel conspiracy theories and scepticism about the true scale of the crisis.
“I would hope that when this is done and dusted NHS England – and to some extent the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England – will reflect on how they tried to shut us down at the beginning,” said Macdonald.
“We were prevented from reporting a pandemic, a national emergency… It didn’t serve anybody well.”
Sean Lintern, The Independent’s Health Correspondent, expressed similar frustrations about the lack of information around staffing and patient levels at the NHS Nightingale Hospitals at the Excel Centre and elsewhere.
The government funded seven NHS Nightingale Hospitals at a cost of about £540 million amid concerns last year that the NHS would be unable to cope with the surge of coronavirus patients.
However, in the end, only 51 patients were treated at the Excel Nightingale and it and other Nightingales were subsequently closed or converted to Covid rehabilitation centres.
“All we were asking for was to be able to speak to the staff there,” says Lintern, who was forced to pose questions on NHS England’s Twitter feed in an attempt to get answers. “We were completely denied any information.”
Other highlights of the new episode include:
- Victoria MacDonald, on her question to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson about his attitude to shaking hands at the first Downing Street Covid press conference on 3rd March 2020: “I wasn’t trying to trick him or trap him. He did that all by himself… His response [that he would continue shaking hands] was absolutely breathtaking.”
- Sarah Boseley, on her scepticism about the government claims that they were being guided by the science: “Chief Medical Officers have a history of being ignored by politicians… What those of us who work in this area know very well is that you can select your science, you can pick the bits that are convenient to follow.”
- Sean Lintern, on the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on frontline NHS staff and reporters: “I’ve had nurses in tears to me on the phone; this stuff weighs heavy.”
- On balancing the need for detailed, accurate reporting with concerns for her own health, Victoria Macdonald said: “One thing you cannot be as a health correspondent is a hypochondriac and I wanted that story. Nothing was going to stop me going into that intensive care unit.”
- On accusations that some of the reporting may have fuelled fear and hysteria, Sean Lintern said: “I’ve been accused of scaremongering at times by certain people. My standard response is it’s not scaremongering, it’s just scary.”
- Sarah Boseley, on the pressure of covering the pandemic: “It’s like what I imagine being a war correspondent is like, because you’re right in the thick of it. The bombs are dropping in every direction and you’re also at risk yourself.”
- Victoria Macdonald describes her year of reporting Covid as “the most incredible, challenging, intellectually stimulating, exhausting, emotionally draining" experience of her life.