‘I put my arms around her’: doctor’s story captures anger at No 10 parties

·4 min read

When Dr Prit Buttar, a retired GP, decided to break social distancing rules and offer his embrace to a bereaved woman, it was a gesture of core humanity. “Everybody on the team would have done exactly the same, Covid or no Covid,” he said from his study near Kirkcudbright.

He did not envisage, a year on, that his recollection of that moment would inspire a cathartic outpouring of similar memories from people across the UK, or that he would become a reluctant – though passionate – advocate for the fury and dismay of ordinary people at the boozy rule-breaking in the seat of power.

“So much for coming up to Scotland for a quiet retirement,” he said.

Last Friday, Buttar – “flabbergasted and angered and amazed” by the ongoing revelations of Downing Street parties – decided to share on Twitter his recollection of this particular patient who had lodged in his memory.

Buttar, a military historian and former British Army surgeon, spent his working life near Oxford before retiring to Dumfries and Galloway in 2016 with his Scottish wife. He usually tweets about wars gone by or his elderly golden retriever, and had waited for a few days after drafting the tweets. “I was just really stunned by the response,” he said.

Buttar offered the hug when he was volunteering at a vaccination centre last spring. In that thread, he describes how a woman in her late 60s had apologised profusely for missing her initial appointment two days earlier. She explained that her husband had died of cancer the previous week. Her only son lived in England and, because his wife had just been diagnosed with Covid, he had been unable to travel. The couple had moved to Scotland from England on the eve of the pandemic, and had had no opportunity to make local friends during lockdown. She had dealt with his death and funeral entirely alone.

“So I decided to break the rules about social distancing. I leaned forward in my chair and put my arms around her. She clung to me and wept, and sobbed into my shoulder, ‘This is the first time anyone’s embraced me since he died.’”

Buttar’s thread has been read by tens of thousands of people and generated hundreds of similarly heart-wrenching examples of momentary rule-bending out of love or compassion: a nurse who admits suggesting to a family they remove their gloves to hold their dying mother’s hand; the son who raced over to his parents’ home after his father collapsed, only to be chastised by police; the stranger who offered a lift to an injured elderly man. As one respondent observed, none of them referred to after-work drinks because the weather was sunny.

“There are so many people with tragic stories of their own and how they had done just the little gestures that make life a bit more bearable,” Butter said. “And then there are the many, many people who had not broken the rules. They had to say goodbye to loved ones through windows or across iPads. And now how angry they were, when they learned of how casually other people had disregarded the rules”.

The thread was categorically not a criticism of lockdown, he added. “The intention was absolutely to highlight the difference between experiences of ordinary people and the conduct of those in leadership.”

On the prime minister’s conduct, Buttar was definitive: “In my working life, had I shown errors of judgment that were remotely close to this the General Medical Council would have taken away my licence to practise.”

The anticipated Gray inquiry was simply “an attempt to kick the can down the road”, he said. “What we already know is sufficiently damning … just from the prime minister’s statement, the level of poor judgment that was shown is already bad enough to require resignation.”

Buttar, who served on the GP’s committee of the British Medical Association, also raised the impact of the Downing Street revelations on colleagues still working on the frontline, particularly in intensive care. “Many old friends are either close to the edge, or actually far beyond the edge. For them to see these emails in Whitehall of ‘We’ve had a jolly hard week, so let’s go for a party in the garden’ … can you imagine as to people’s morale?”

Comments were still being left under the thread, he said. “There is a huge need for people to tell their stories and to open up about what these brutal days meant to them.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting