'I've lost who I was': UK pauses to reflect on year of Covid

By Sirin Kale

A year to the day since the UK went into a historic lockdown to combat a frightening and deadly new pandemic, the nation looks back in disbelief and horror. One hundred and twenty six thousand dead. A decimated economy. The reckoning will take decades to pick over.

Tuesday’s day of reflection, organised by the cancer charity Marie Curie and backed by over 110 organisations, will be observed across the nation. A minute’s silence at midday is followed by a doorstep vigil at 8pm. Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford are expected to mark the occasion. Prominent buildings and national landmarks will be illuminated in yellow, to commemorate the dead.

For the families and friends bereaved by Covid-19, it is a day to quietly contemplate those they have lost. For long Covid survivors, it is a reminder the vaccine-enabled relaxing of restrictions will not do much for the bodies they are trapped in that do not work like they used to. For everyone else, it is a day to take stock. So many taken before their time.

The nation grieves.

“It’s bittersweet,” says 53-year-old wellness practitioner Deborah Doyle. Her mother, 76-year-old Sylvia Griffiths, died on 16 April. Doyle is coordinating memorial events in her home town of Sunderland. On Tuesday morning, she will tie a yellow ribbon on the railing of Sunderland Minster for her mother.

When she does, she’ll be thinking of Sylvia’s laughter. “My mum had a raucous laugh,” Doyle says. “She was a very funny lady. She had that dry, Midlands sense of humour. That’s what I have left of her, ringing in my ears … her laughter.”

For Neil Hames, 49, a self-employed contractor from Solihull, Tuesday feels particularly jagged and raw because not only is it the anniversary of the day the UK went into lockdown, but also the day his father, Walter “Wally” Hames, died, aged 75. “This is the week that it was all happening,” says Hames. “Twelve months to the day. Every day in March has a memory, and it feels like you can’t get away from it. I can’t believe it’s been 12 months. It feels like yesterday.”

Hames misses his father acutely, constantly. “I miss my dad so badly at the moment,” he says. “So badly. He’s on my mind every day.” Wally was a supporter of Birmingham City football club. Last week, they beat Reading in their first game under their new manager, Lee Bowyer. “Normally I would pick up the phone to talk to him about it,” Hames says, “but he’s not there. I can’t do that. I still have the inclination to message him, and I can’t.”

Neil Hames with his father Walter Hames at Wembley in 2011 watching Birmingham City play Arsenal in the League Cup final.
Neil Hames with his father Walter Hames at Wembley in 2011 watching Birmingham City play Arsenal in the League Cup final. Photograph: Neil Hames/PA

The day of reflection feels especially meaningful because the pandemic has robbed the bereaved of the rituals that would typically mark the death of a loved one. During Covid, there have been no wakes, no churches or mosques densely packed with mourners, not even the scant consolation of a hug from friends. “I’ve been robbed of all the things you’d usually have when you have a bereavement,” Doyle says. “Getting together with family and friends, that human contact, being able to hold each other and grieve and celebrate the person who was lost. When you can’t have that, it feels like you’re in limbo. It’s hard to move on.”

A national day of mourning goes some way to allay this further loss. “It helps,” says Doyle, “because there hasn’t been anything concrete for the country to remember our loved ones. This is a collective, national thing, to understand that people have lost loved ones, and reflect on that. It means my mum wasn’t just a number. She was a person.”

More than anything, Charlie Williams, 53, a community worker from Birmingham, feels shocked by the calamity that has unfolded on our shores in the last 12 months. “It’s just … mind-blowing,” Williams says, reaching for the words. “Who can comprehend what’s happened? That 126,000 people would die in this small island called Britain, in 12 months.” Williams’s father, Vernute Williams, died in a Coventry care home in April, aged 85.

Charlie Williams and his father, Vernute.
Charlie Williams and his father, Vernute. Photograph: Family Handout

“Someone needs to give us answers and be held accountable for this catastrophe,” Williams tells me.

In addition to his father’s loss, Williams has been deeply affected by the scale of deaths in the Black community. “As a Black man,” he tells me, “I’ve never witnessed so many people dying in such a short space of time. The statistics are frightening. We’re a minority in this country and yet we’ve died in such disproportionate numbers, from our doctors and nurses to our cleaners. It’s unbelievable.”

For those bereaved in the first wave, the day of reflection brings an additional layer of traumatic recognition. “A lot of us who lost people early on are reliving what happened in the run-up to losing them,” says Jo Goodman of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK support group. “People are posting their last memories of seeing people or the things their loved one did that they believe led them to contract Covid.”

Goodman, who lives in London, lost her father Stuart, 72, on 2 April. “Looking back at the time,” Goodman says, “so much of the country was aware that everything was happening too slowly, and it felt like a slow-motion car crash. But at no point did I know that I was going to be part of the wreckage.”

A public inquiry would bring Goodman and her fellow campaigners some peace. “They say that grief is love with nowhere to go,” says Goodman. “My love for my father has to go towards stopping this from ever happening again.”

It is not only the bereaved who have had their worlds changed beyond recognition by the pandemic. For long Covid survivors, Tuesday commemorates the end of their old lives, and the beginning of an existence marked by fear, fatigue and pain.

Claire Hastie, a 48-year-old former communications worker from Birmingham, fell ill with Covid on 17 March.

At the time, she cycled 13 miles a day to her full-time job. Now she uses a wheelchair and is on long-term sick leave.

Claire Hastie
Claire Hastie. Photograph: Family Handout

Hastie is the founder of a support group for UK long Covid survivors with more than 37,000 members. “A lot of us are really struggling. I know it’s just a date. But it makes you realise how much your life has changed. By this time next year, will it be any different? Will we have recovered? Will we ever recover? It makes you reflect.”

Many struggle to access support: a survey Hastie coordinated of long Covid survivors found that 74% of the 268 people who sought referral to a specialist long Covid clinic on or since December 2020 had not been able to do so, either because there wasn’t one in their area, or because they had never tested positive for Covid, or never been admitted to hospital.

Hastie will mark Tuesday by making blue felt flowers, as are many people in her group. “The centre represents the lives lost in the pandemic,” Hastie says, “and there are four petals, to represent the lives changed by long Covid, NHS and care workers, the other frontline workers, and the scientists and researchers.”

Long Covid survivors face a summer of fewer restrictions with trepidation. “I know we can’t stay in lockdown forever,” says Linda Eaves, 54. “We have to get back to normal. But it worries me that people think they’re safe now. The thought of going through this again terrifies me.”

Linda Eaves
Linda Eaves. Photograph: Family Handout

Before Covid, Eaves regularly worked 54-hour weeks as a healthcare assistant in a care home in Blackpool. Now she cannot hang up laundry; she can just about manage a bath. She had to move out of her flat, because she could not afford the rent, and lives with her sister, who is her carer. She uses a wheelchair. “I can’t walk,” she says, “I am still in pain every day. I’m basically depressed. I’ve lost who I was. I used to be independent, live on my own, and earn my own money. Now I have to rely on other people to do the most basic things.”

She leaves the house only for doctor’s appointments. Mostly, she watches TV. Eaves tries to feel grateful for being alive.

“I don’t feel like one of the lucky ones,” she says. “But I know I am … I have to try and remember I am still here.”

Many long Covid survivors feel ignored by a society hellbent on returning to normal as quickly as possible. “My fear is that as the world gets back to normal, those suffering from long Covid will be forgotten,” says Lere Fisher, a 47-year-old former learning and development consultant from London, currently on sick leave. “How will we be treated when we return to work? How will the world continue, with so many people suffering in this manner?”

Lere Fisher
Lere Fisher: ‘How will the world continue?’ Photograph: Family Handout

People with long Covid fear being left behind.

“As the world opens up again,” says Hastie, “it becomes much more obvious that we are left behind. When you’re locked down, you don’t notice it as much. No one’s going to pubs or offices. But when the world starts to mobilise, a lot of us will be stuck, and that’s quite hard to accept, I suppose.”

Social media in particular can feel a bafflingly callous place. “People don’t seem to care now,” says Josh Dean, 24, a student from Halifax. His uncle Andrew Dean died aged 53 on 19 January.

“They care more about going to the pub than holding the government to account.”

But for some bereaved, this sense that society does not want to look their suffering square in the face can compound feelings of estrangement and alienation. “There’s this view,” says Zarina Mahmood, 46, an account director from London, “that the people who died were old and had underlying conditions, so let’s move on. It’s disrespectful and upsetting. We can’t just brush this whole year under the carpet.’”

Zarina Mahmood with her late father Sayed Mohamed Kadri.
Zarina Mahmood with her late father, Sayed Mohamed Kadri. Photograph: Family Handout

Mahmood’s father, Sayed Mohamed Kadri, died on 10 May, aged 74. Now, she feels like a citizen of a parallel country, like the UK but separate from it, an independent colony of the bereaved. The bereaved walk among us and speak our language, but do not feel as we do. “I wish that people could borrow my eyes and my thoughts and know what I’ve seen and felt,” says Mahmood. “And then they would understand. But some people just don’t get it. I live in hope that they will understand.”

For people like Mahmood, the sharp stick of a vaccine needle will not mark a full stop, only an ellipsis. The UK moves on, but for the bereaved and long Covid survivors, theirs is a faltering step forward, not a lockstep in line. “We understand that people are desperate for a return to normality,” says Goodman. “And we are not apart from that. But for us, we will never return to normal. Our lives will never be the same.”