February 4. There is published today a new book by the journalist Peter Oborne: The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.*
“I have been a political reporter for almost three decades,” he writes. “I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.”
The standard response to this kind of exposé, however well conducted, is that lying is priced into the Johnson brand, and here he is, world king with an eighty-seat majority and his party still ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.
Covid-19 has, however, created a new and more urgent response to Johnson’s mendacity.
Also just published is a report from the front line, Breath taking. Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic, by Rachel Clarke.** It describes the experiences of a doctor during the early months of the outbreak. Clarke was a television journalist before retraining as a doctor specialising in palliative care. When the crisis broke, like many others from different medical disciplines she volunteered to an intensive care unit in a nearby hospital.
A theme throughout her book is the enhanced importance of truth in communicating with seriously ill patients:
“When drugs run dry, when cure is no longer an option, I deal in words like my patients’ lives depend on it. Words build trust, allay fears, dispel myths, inspire hope. They clarify, challenge, encounter and console. Words leap beyond the constraints of masks and gowns and gloves and gowns. Titrated carefully, dosed just right, words can take a dying patient all the way from the depths of despair to a place of home and even serenity… It follows that doctors have a duty to use our words with exceptional care. We are nothing if our patients cannot trust us. Above all, our words must be our bond.” (p. 212)
Other accounts emerging from intensive care units stress the urgency of what may be final words.
An anaesthetist writes of his experience preparing a patient for a ventilator:
“‘I need to phone my family,’ she gasps. I nod and say OK, almost shouting to be heard over the noise of the alarms. The patient tries to talk to her family on FaceTime. She is extremely breathless and looks like she is dry drowning in thin air. Tears pour down her face. I hear someone on the phone crying and saying ‘I love you’ … While we are pre-oxygenating her, I take off her CPAP hood and lean closer. ‘We’re here to look after you. Everything will be OK.’ I stop talking because I think I might cry. I worry she is dying. I hold her hand. She squeezes it and I squeeze hers back.”***
Every word, however brief and obscured by machinery, masks or bad phone reception, is freighted with a lifetime’s meaning.
An individual or institutional crisis places an additional premium on truth. Stressed and exhausted by her days on the ward, Rachel Clarke was enraged by the casual, self-regarding misrepresentations in Boris Johnson’s daily press conferences. She knew just what was happening in the hospitals, how much worse matters really were for both patients and staff.
“I never wanted Red Arrows, medals or minutes of silence” she writes at the end of her book: “Like my colleagues, my needs were more prosaic. Really I just wanted honesty from those who rule us.” (p. 216)
*(London: Simon and Schuster, 2021)
**Rachel Clarke, Breath taking. Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic (London: Little, Brown, 2021).