'We're sickened': Bereaved families slam government over lockdown parties
- Credit: PA/family handouts
“What if we had a government that took this pandemic even mildly seriously and didn't think it was appropriate to gather in large groups and have celebrations? Maybe my dad would still be alive."
Around 150,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK.
As the families of loved ones have carried on, the government has become mired in a series of scandals.
It has faced accusations of sleepwalking into a crisis, followed by failures on PPE and testing as it awarded lucrative contracts to firms with ties to the Conservative Party.
Dominic Cummings was revealed to have travelled hundreds of miles during lockdown, then Matt Hancock was caught in a clinch with a colleague – and now Boris Johnson faces the same charge: breaking the government’s own rules while people across the country followed them.
As they head into Christmas, the grieving are faced with photos and reports of gatherings and parties. They are without their mum, their dad, their son, their daughter, their grandad, their grandmother.
The Ham&High spoke with bereaved families in north London over revelations of Covid rule-breaking. "Sickened”, they say the government has failed in its duty to protect people’s lives.
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'It’s like a knife to the heart’
John Collins was 68. He worked as an electrical engineer for Murphy’s in Kentish Town. He met his wife of 42 years in the darts club of Marks and Spencer in Camden Town. His family ran the Winchester pub in Highgate.
On November 21 last year John died of Covid-19. The Harrow resident battled for four weeks after catching the virus at Northwick Park Hospital while there for surgery.
“Everybody says their dad is the best dad don't they, but he really was an amazing dad,” Sharon, his daughter said. “He was always on hand to help me with absolutely anything and everything.
“Dad was known for how kind he was. He was a devoted family man. Without him there’s a gap in my life that doesn't quite make sense. It’s a massive void.
“I still have days when I go to call him because I'm still coming to the realisation that I can't do that anymore, and that he's not around.
“It's the little things... when something good happens in my day and I want to share it he would always be the person that I would share it with.
“When you're that close with somebody you can't quite understand why you've lost them. You just feel empty. There’s always this grey cloud of sadness and emptiness hanging over you.”
Sharon, 35, said her dad was “robbed” in a “very cruel and inhumane way”. She puts this down to the government acting too slowly and against scientific advice, and the prime minister giving mixed messages.
“We feel let down. These people are meant to be in charge of our country and running it to the best of their ability,” Sharon said.
“Now, after seeing all the parties and Allegra [Stratton] laughing, it's like a knife to the heart.
“I don’t know how as a nation we can trust a government that has been so dishonest and so disloyal to us all.
“I know Allegra resigned, but it’s not enough for us. We can’t simply get our loved ones back as they will simply be able to get another job. It's just not the same.”
Sharon called Boris Johnson a “confusion to a nation”, saying he would never understand his failings “as he’s not that type of person”.
“He met with some of our bereaved families. He expressed empathy and how sorry he was and how things would change.
"Here we are few months on. We've had Cummings, we've had Matt Hancock and now we've got Christmas party failings.
“It's no surprise... it's like what next? We just constantly feel let down.”
‘I feel so guilty. He died on his own’
Zahari Ngah was 68. He worked for nearly 40 years in the NHS as a clinical psychotherapist. In his spare time he supported refugees and asylum seekers.
He loved the NHS and strongly believed that healthcare should be available to everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged.
The Malaysian national was said to be “surgically removed” from Camden to Islington by his wife, such was his attachment to the borough.
On February 7 he died from Covid-19. Just under a month earlier his wife dropped him off at University College Hospital, before being rushed out by staff over the fear she may have Covid herself. That was the last the family saw of him.
“Dad had never been in hospital in my living memory,” Safiah, his daughter said. “He was terrified to put it mildly. He was really, really scared.
“After he went into ICU he said to us on a call that the things he had seen, no one should ever have to see.
“People were just dying around him all the time and it must have been absolutely terrifying.”
Zahari, who lived with his family in Angel, was buried in a Muslim cemetery where they used diggers to mark out graves – as they didn’t have the manpower to deal with the number of bodies coming in at the time, Safiah said.
Due to Covid restrictions, five people attended her dad’s funeral. Recalling his final moments, the 29-year-old said: “Every day I feel so guilty about everything that dad went through.
“It was hell in that hospital in ICU at that time. I feel so bad that he had to go through it on his own.
“It’s really upsetting to think we wouldn’t be afforded the chance to be with our loved ones at this crucial moment, for the darkest moment ever.
“And yet they (the government) were able to gather together and celebrate. It's just disgusting.
“The government has been a failure in the way it has handled the pandemic. You can’t plan for something like this but the way we dealt with it... we were constantly chasing our tail.
“We never acted ahead of what was going on, and our death rate is just proof of that.”
‘Liberty trumping human life... what is that?’
Ivor Garfinkel was 76. He lived in Stanmore, Harrow. He was shielding throughout the pandemic. For 18 months his family only saw him on a handful of occasions.
On "freedom day" – July 19, 2021 – the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. Eleven days later Ivor died from Covid-19.
His son David, 49, believes he lost his dad as a result of freedom day.
“Thousands of lives have been lost since,” he said. “It’s really hard to accept that it was essentially a political decision.
“Not one backed by the majority of scientists, but one pushed through by people who want less restrictions and who seem to have this perversion for liberty over lives.
“I can't even explain it... I don't even understand what that is. Where liberty trumps human life.
“After freedom day the tone they set was ‘yes, yes, yes.’ Go out and enjoy yourselves. Go to the pub, go to bars, go to theatres, go on holiday, start doing all of these wonderful things – oh but remember there's still a pandemic going on.
“The narrative completely changed, and my dad suffered the consequences of that.”
'A catalogue of catastrophic mistakes'
Michael Gottlieb was 73. He lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb and worked at a golf shop in Muswell Hill.
On April 17 Michael died from Covid-19. Around the same time, Mili, his wife of 52 years, also contracted the virus. Approaching two years on, she still struggles with long Covid.
“Seeing lockdown parties opens fresh wounds,” Rivka, Michael’s daughter said.
“The fact we couldn't say goodbye, the fact we couldn't see him. We followed all the rules and we weren't able to say goodbye and we weren't able to visit him in hospital.
“We're constantly, constantly reminded of that. The grieving process throughout this pandemic for people who lost someone to Covid is very different to any other kind of death.
“It’s a traumatic grief. And we have constant reminders all the time that it shouldn't have happened, it didn't have to happen, that other people are dying unnecessarily.
“We now know what we need to do in order to keep people safe – and we're not doing enough of that. It just boggles the mind... there is so much that we could and should have been doing differently.
“The leadership has been appalling all the way through. It’s been a catalogue of catastrophic mistakes. And then on top of that they weren't even following their own rules.
“It's been really hard for our family, but we trundle on.”
'Every death is a tragedy’
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice is a group made up of relatives who have lost loved ones to the virus. The group continues to call for an immediate inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.
It says an investigation is the only way of preventing even more deaths in the future, by examining the mistakes of government in the past.
Whitehall says the inquiry will start in spring 2022. A spokesperson for the government said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones.
“We will ensure the inquiry gets to the bottom of many of the questions thousands of bereaved families have about the pandemic.
"We have committed to holding a full public inquiry as soon as is reasonably possible, and will appoint the chair of the inquiry by Christmas (since announced as Baroness Heather Hallett), and consult bereaved families and other groups on the terms of reference before they are finalised.
"It is critical we understand what happened in detail, but at the moment it is right that public servants continue to focus their efforts on tackling the pandemic.”