LONDON — It can take between five and ten minutes to walk the heart-festooned memorial wall in London commemorating those who died from COVID-19 in the U.K — far longer if you pause every few steps to read the heartfelt messages of love that bereaved families and friends have overlaid the pink and red hearts with.
Walking along the 8-foot-high Portland stone wall on the south side of the River Thames, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, is a somber experience, especially for those who lost someone and who think the British government could have done a lot more to prevent the U.K.’s enormous death toll during the pandemic.
As the global death toll nears the threshold of 5 million dead, Britain officially has recorded around 140,000 coronavirus-related deaths, Europe’s second highest toll after Russia. The actual number is believed to be higher — around 160,000 — as there was very little testing done in the early days of the pandemic in the U.K. in the spring of 2020.
The National COVID Memorial Wall on a half-kilometer stretch of the Albert Embankment is dedicated to those who died, with each life lost represented by a carefully painted heart that volunteers freshen up on a weekly basis with long-lasting masonry paints.
There’s also the odd cake and a cup of coffee.
For the volunteers, it’s a bit like art therapy — meditative.
“For me I think it has absolutely fulfilled the original intention which was to remind people of the scale of our loss,” said Fran Hall, a spokesperson for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice who lost her husband of three weeks, Steve Mead, in September 2020, a day before his 66th birthday.
Hall makes the weekly trek along with several others to ensure the hearts don’t fade to pink from luscious red and add inscriptions from those bereaved who can’t make the journey to the wall.
“We’re getting red back onto the wall, to keep it vibrant,” said Hall. “As you walk along you’ll see thousands and thousands of names, so the hearts have been personalized. They’re all special.”
The memorial was established in March by the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice and campaign group Led by Donkeys as a visual representation of the scale of loss in the U.K. during the pandemic. Incredibly it took less than two weeks for the army of volunteers to paint the 150,000 or so hearts.
The government has yet to give the wall official status, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson told bereaved families, including Hall herself, recently that it is a “good candidate” to be a permanent memorial.
“This memorial means so much to the bereaved as a lot of us could not have our last goodbyes,” said Amanda Herring who lost her 54-year old brother Mark Herring just before the U.K. was first put into lockdown in March 2020.
“It just needs to be a permanent memorial for our loved ones and it does mean so much to me, and this is why I come down to help with the fellow bereaved, who are now my friends, to help re-freshen the hearts and add new inscriptions … which in a way is so heart-breaking,” she added.
COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which has around 4,000 members, has been calling for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic so lessons can be learned to limit future virus-related deaths.
It has criticized Johnson and his Conservative government for mismanagement during the pandemic, including delaying lockdowns, a lack of protective gear for health workers, and having a too-lax travel policy — a combination that it says meant tens of thousands of people died needlessly. A parliamentary report has already declared the coronavirus pandemic “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.”
After months of deflecting calls, Johnson has confirmed that a public inquiry with statutory powers will start to hear evidence next year and that the bereaved families will have a role in it. However, the bereaved families think that’s too late and watch with horror the U.K.’s rising infection levels, which are running several-fold more than countries like France and Germany. Though the rollout of vaccines has clearly limited the number of people dying from COVID after being infected, the U.K. is still recording around 150 virus-related deaths a day — another thousand families a week grieving.
“We feel that nobody is listening to us and to get our stories out will make other people maybe take more care, maybe think twice about getting on a packed train or not wearing a mask if they hear our stories, they are heartfelt,” said Sioux Vosper, who lost her 80-year-old father John David Leigh in April 2020.
“It’s a nine-minute walk from one end to the other and everyone that comes here, they can’t help but think all those numbers they saw on the television were just numbers, they come here and they’re beating hearts, they can’t shy away from that,” she added.