NYE Protests Outside Hospital: My Experience and Thoughts

I was taken aback by the number of people resonating with my anger. I wanted to share what exactly happened, and my thoughts around it.

Dr. Matthew Lee
Dr. Matthew Lee

I recently posted about some protests outside my hospital which was deservedly met with public outrage. The video hit 4.9 million views. That's a lot more people than I can imagine.

It was incredible to see my videos and messages being distributed across the world, from media outlets like BBC News, ITV and The Guardian to social media-based platforms like Ladbible. I'm glad people are speaking about it and are equally as angry as I was that night. A lot of good conversation has happened because of it.

I've since had some time to reflect on things and see how I want to build on it. Unfortunately I've been fairly limited in my media opportunities, so I never got a chance to tell the world about the actual events that night. So here it is.

I want to shed some light on what really happened that evening, and share my thoughts.

All opinions expressed are of my own and not those of affiliated hospitals or organisations.

11.30pm, December 31st 2020

I walked out of my hospital in central London after finishing a late shift. It was a tiring one but I'd seen quite a few sick patients, and left with a satisfaction that I'd done some good. It was a New Year's Eve unlike any other. The fireworks I'd been looking so forward to seeing had been cancelled this year, and the country had been thrown into yet another lockdown to control the Covid-19 pandemic. Although there weren't to be public celebrations this year (or so I thought), I was looking forward to going home to count down with my flatmates, and starting 2021 in a really positive way.

As I made my way to the entrance of what I anticipated would be an empty Westminster Bridge, I noticed a lot of noise. There was a large group of people walking across the bridge in my direction. The first thing I noticed was how loud they were, chanting things like "Covid is a hoax" and "They can't take our freedom away". The second thing was that none of them had masks. There were at least 50-100 of them there. They made their way outside the hospital gates where they continued their shouting.

I was so angry, but in that moment it felt like I was the only one; everyone else was laughing, shouting, chanting, dancing, drunk. I spoke out at a few to tell them they shouldn't be there, but was quickly laughed away. I spoke to a couple of uniformed police officers and was told to "not get involved". They were numerically overwhelmed and sensibly trying to disperse the crowds peacefully, although without great success.

I stared in disbelief as more people poured in from other directions. I took a few videos to share my anger with family and friends, and made a mental note to bring this up with my colleagues when I saw them tomorrow. My presence and voice clearly weren't making a difference, so I left.

You can see the full video of what happened here.

The police had barricaded the entrance to Westminster Bridge but after telling them I was just trying to get home from work, was allowed over. I walked over the bridge and was met with a lot more bustle. Not protesters, but individuals who'd just come out to enjoy New Year's Eve. I guess they didn't get the memo about the pandemic.

Come on, people. We are in the midst of a global health crisis. I was heartbroken. How could people still be so ignorantly doing this? Why couldn't they respect the death and sickness that happened in hospitals? Not only were they compromising the safety and health of themselves, but they were also compromising that of those around them.

Real people are dying. Tomorrow, it could you, or someone that you know.

I frustratedly shared my thoughts on Twitter, before heading home. Because of all the commotion, I never made it home on time. I spent the strike of New Year's on the Jubilee line. In one year, out the next.

January 1st, 2020

I didn't think too much about it as I went to work the next day. I worked the 2-11pm shift on January 1st, and my head was preoccupied with a few sick patients that had come into the department.

A few hours into my shift, a friend tapped me on the shoulder. "I saw your tweet!" This startled me into a mental flashback, as I tried to recall when I'd shared my Twitter profile with my colleagues. I hadn't, her friend had seen it and shown her. Another hour or so later, another colleague came up to me and exclaimed, "Matt, Piers Morgan has just retweeted you!" I couldn't understand how it had blown up so quickly. It appeared quite a few others had seen the tweet too - I had people constantly messaging me throughout the day. Colleagues I'd worked with recently, old friends I'd not seen few years.

I also remember feeling extremely anxious and being unable to comprehend the situation. At the same time that this was going on, I saw a gentleman who had come in with chest pain and had dynamic electrocardiogram (ECG) changes, potentially suggesting an acute heart attack. These situations are time critical as blocked coronary arteries need to be reopened ASAP, and I had to act fast. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the social media situation, but having to really focus on my clinical decisions. Thankfully, he was OK in the end.

The funniest thing was at the end of my shift, several of the consultants (most senior doctors in charge of the departments) and some of the middle-grade doctors formed a circle around me and told me they'd seen my tweet. I don't know how word travelled this fast, but it did. It's a weird feeling when your bosses know the latest gossip about you. Or follow you on Twitter.

Even Piers Morgan had a say!

The Aftermath

It took a few days to comprehend what was really happening. The post continued to reach many more people, and I followed the conversations and comments with interest, seeing how different communities reacted. Back at home in Hong Kong and across Asia, disbelief at how people were still treating Covid-19 so lightly. Among the UK networks, a familiar story. Once again, ignorant people out there. A residual sense of resignation of what once was extreme anger at the situation, normalised by the tens of stories of people breaking rules and not taking the pandemic seriously.

The media team and heads of my department were in touch with me shortly after. I was told to pass on any requests by media outlets, but they would likely not be granting any interview opportunities about this matter. Any publicity can appear as bad publicity.

I understand the conversations about media, and will always respect the boundaries and their wishes. But I don't necessarily agree that all publicity is bad publicity. Media is an incredibly powerful platform that exists to deliver important messages about our world. People learn what's really happening, and gain real perspective. Everyone should be allowed to speak.

At the end of the day, I'm just a small cog in a big system. We're all working for the same thing: a safer society and better patient healthcare.

Spreading Important Messages

This event and its discussions have highlighted to me just how much misinformation there is. Many people don't know what's really happening out there.

It stems from a government level: when Boris Johnson announces that schools are safe to reopen before declaring a nation-wide lockdown right the next day, of course it's going to send mixed messages and confusion. Good policy and understanding stems from good leadership. We have not had any of that in the United Kingdom.

But I believe that to a certain degree, this ignorance is also driven by social media and information availability. If you've watched 'The Social Dilemma' recently, you'll know what I'm talking about: the algorithms dictate what you see and feeds you content it thinks you'll like or relate to. The more articles you read on Covid being a hoax, the more you'll see.

As a medical professional, I'm in an incredibly privileged position of awareness. I've been taught so much in medical school, and am now seeing the realities of what's happening in hospitals. Other people don't see the same thing, and as a result they might not be able to comprehend it. In the same way, you might experience something or have been affected in a way that only you can describe. If you - or I - don't speak out, we'll never come to understand each other's perspectives.

But that doesn't mean hope is lost. If we all speak out, we can populate the internet with posts filled with truth and wisdom, drowning out the fake ones. For those who choose to think a certain way that endangers the safety of others, perhaps by finding out more on about what is really happening, they might change their minds.

We all have the responsibility to do this, and I touch on this concept in an article about why every medical professional should be writing. The more of us speak out the truth, the less prevalent false information will be. This is the message that I'll be advocating going forward. We, as the people, have the most powerful voices.

Final Thoughts and Moving Forward

First and foremost, I will never, ever, underestimate the power of Twitter and social media again. For all the things I could have gone viral for, I'm glad that it was a meaningful one. I'm relieved so many people were as angry as I was that evening as I stepped out of my hospital. I may have been alone that night, but I certainly don't feel alone now.

On a personal level, this whole experience has been incredibly humbling and shown me just how big and volatile the world is. It's created opportunities and conversations that I never would have had otherwise, and I'm so excited to see what I can do with things. It's also provided a slightly larger platform for me to share my thoughts in a more meaningful way.

I make videos, write articles and post frequently on Twitter and Instagram. I hope to continue sharing my stories and messages on social media, where I can speak for myself instead of under affiliation. This is a voice that no one can take away from me. I'll be aware of the constant scrutiny and accountability for everything I do, make or say. But I embrace this. It's a luxury to be able to speak, and to be heard. I hope to use it for good.

In a global battle against the virus, we need to be working together and not against one another. I hope to play my part, seeing patients on the front line and speaking out. Covid-19 doesn't discriminate. Stay safe, and let's fight this thing together.

Thanks for reading, and I'd love for you to share your thoughts with me!

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Dr. Matthew Lee

Medical Doctor. Entrepreneur. Digital health geek. I write at the intersection of medicine, healthcare technologies, and life.