Ohen retired GP Dr Prit Buttar decided to break social distancing rules and offer a hug to a grieving woman, it was a gesture of basic humanity. “Everyone on the team would have done the exact same thing, Covid or no Covid,” he said from his study near Kirkcudbright.
He did not envision, a year later, that his memory of that moment would inspire a cathartic outpouring of similar memories from people across the UK, or that he would become a reluctant – albeit passionate – defender of the fury and from the dismay of ordinary people to the alcoholic who breaks the rules in the seat of power.
“So much for coming to Scotland for a quiet retirement,” he said.
Last Friday, Buttar – “flabbergasted and irritated and amazed” by the ongoing revelations from the 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 past wars or his old golden retriever, and waited a few days after writing the tweets. “I was really stunned by the response,” he said.
Buttar offered the hug while volunteering at a vaccination center last spring. In this thread, he describes how a woman in her late 60s apologized profusely for missing her first date two days earlier. She explained that her husband had died of cancer the previous week. His only son was living 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 no opportunity to make local friends during the lockdown. She had handled his death and funeral entirely alone.
“So I decided to break the social distancing rules. I leaned forward in my chair and put my arms around her. She clung to me and cried, and sobbed into my shoulder, ‘It’s the first time anyone’s kissed me since they died.'”
Buttar’s thread has been read by tens of thousands of people and has generated hundreds of equally heartbreaking examples of momentary breaking of the rules out of love or compassion: a nurse who admits to suggesting to a family removing his gloves to hold his dying mother’s hand; the son who ran to his parents’ house after his father collapsed, only to be reprimanded by the police; the stranger who offered a lift to an injured elderly man. As one respondent observed, none of them mentioned drinks after work because the weather was sunny.
“There are so many people with tragic stories of their own and how they just did the little things that make life a little more bearable,” Butter said. “And then there are the very many people who didn’t break the rules. They had to say goodbye to their loved ones through windows or iPads. And now, how angry they were, when they learned how casually other people had ignored the rules”.
The thread was emphatically not a criticism of the lockdown, he added. “The intent was absolutely to highlight the difference between the experiences of ordinary people and the conduct of leaders.”
On the prime minister’s conduct, Buttar was adamant: “In my professional life, if I had shown errors of judgment approaching this, the General Medical Council would have withdrawn my license to practice.”
Gray’s early investigation was simply “an attempt to kick the box out on the road,” he said. “What we already know is damning enough… based on the Prime Minister’s statement alone, the level of poor judgment that has been demonstrated is already bad enough to warrant resignation.”
Buttar, who sat on the British Medical Association’s GP committee, also spoke about the impact of the Downing Street revelations on colleagues still working on the frontline, particularly in intensive care. “A lot of old friends are either close to the edge or way beyond the edge. For them to see those emails in Whitehall of ‘We’ve had a rough week so let’s party in the garden’… can you imagine the morale of the people?
Comments were still being left under the thread, he said. “There is a huge need for people to tell their stories and open up about what those brutal days meant to them.”