As the UK Covid inquiry enters the investigative phase on July 21, it is a moment for those of us who lost loved ones during the pandemic – particularly the early pandemic – to reflect on what happened.
I’ve written before about my experience of losing both my parents during the first Covid lockdown. Now, Baroness Hallett, as inquiry chair, shares the enormous responsibility of learning from and listening to a wide range of individuals and families like mine.
Those most directly impacted by the pandemic (and by the government’s response to it) hail from a diverse range of demographics. One of the striking messages so far is the clear inequality of consequence for different groups within our society.
My hope is that the listening part of the inquiry will bring forward voices that may not always be heard, and that we will learn and grow as a result. Though there is, of course, a long way to go between now and any sort of healing conclusion.
I have particular empathy with the many who were bereaved, and want them to have the chance to tell their stories. My parents died alone, of Covid-19, in Southampton General Hospital, within hours of each other on Easter Sunday, 2020. They were cremated without a funeral – as anything resembling the funeral they deserved was not permitted at that time.
In fact, we held a wonderful memorial for them just a week ago. This was a joyful event attended by many friends and family that celebrated their lives in the way the best funerals do. Until we began to arrange the memorial, I had not taken account of just how much I needed it: I needed to say goodbye to them, share memories of them with others who loved them too, hear their stories. It was a huge relief at last to give them the send-off they deserved.
We have all read about the government’s response to Covid-19, a pandemic that came inexorably to Britain in early 2020 as we watched the horror of lockdown, rising infection levels and sickening death rates in many of our closest neighbours – Spain, France, Italy. At this crucial time our PM, Boris Johnson, was asleep at the wheel.
We know he missed the early Cobra meetings when our pandemic response was discussed, and only recently we discovered he was holed up at Chequers settling the finances of his divorce – apparently a matter of personal urgency before announcing his partner was pregnant.
This was the first dereliction of duty, but many were to follow: visiting hospitals, shaking hands with staff, claiming it’d all be over by Christmas (2020, that is), the mass hospital discharge – without testing – of elderly folk into care homes that seeded the virus in the community most vulnerable to die from it.
Then there was the awarding of PPE contracts to Conservative Party donors, friends and family – many of whom had no prior experience.
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My sympathy goes out to those who could not be with their loved ones during their illnesses and as they departed this life; those who have been plagued by their lonely deaths and have felt the loss of not being able to say goodbye or to offer comfort: neither at the point of death nor at a funeral. These people have much to tell us about the mistakes made and the consequences.
My hope is that they will be given full access to the inquiry to express their loss – a loss amplified by the surrounding circumstances and the raw injustice of losing loved ones in settings where they should have been most safe.
The most valuable listening has the potential to give closure to those who suffered loss, to those who felt their loss was not inevitable but caused through mismanagement. Such a loss is probably far harder to accept than a natural death, particularly when faced with a government that has constantly refused to admit any mistakes or accept any criticism.
By fully listening to all groups negatively impacted by the pandemic response we, as individuals and the government, will be able to understand what went wrong, and therefore what we would do better in a future pandemic. Our government has, in my opinion, shown itself generally to be highly sensitive to scrutiny, taking any criticism as a personal slight; yet it is both a vital part of our democracy and a tool for growth.
I am tired of hearing how wonderful the government’s response to Covid-19 was – because we all know that the vaccine is not the whole story, and that Britain suffered the highest number of deaths among European nations.
My hope is that ours is a mature nation that can hear honest testimony from all of society and really listen to what is said.
Rosemary Dartnall is a Labour councillor for Bayston Hill, Column and Sutton in Shropshire