The story behind the National Covid Memorial Wall

Fran Hall at the National Covid Memorial Wall

Four Minute Read

After Fran Hall’s husband Steve died with Covid in 2020, she became an active member of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Campaign. Here she tells us why the National Covid Memorial Wall matters so much and why she and other families are campaigning for justice.

The idea for the wall came from Matt and Jo, who set up the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign. We are a collection of bereaved families who are working hard on the campaign for a public inquiry. A couple of weeks before, members of the group within reach of London were invited to contribute to an artistic commemoration of the tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives to Covid.

At that point, we didn’t know what we might be signing up for. But I was intrigued, so I put my name down. At an online briefing a few days before the intended start, the organisers showed us an artist’s impression of the wall, and told us that, because we didn’t have permission, we would be committing criminal damage and could face a fine or prison. Despite this, I don’t think anyone decided to duck out.

I volunteered for Monday, the first day, and potentially the most risky. When I arrived at the Albert Embankment, everything was incredibly well organised. We were divided into groups of three or four people. Each group was allocated a section of the wall to draw a heart for every single person who had Covid listed as a cause of death on their death certificate — over 150,000 hearts. As we got started, I found myself talking to people who had had similar experiences to me. I was so drawn to being there that I came back the next day and the next, I spent ten days working on the wall in total.

I didn’t know beforehand what an impact it would have on me. I drew the first heart and wrote Steve’s name on it and carried on, thinking as I drew each heart about the people who were impacted just as I had been. I felt very responsible. It felt like it was an important thing to do.

People walking by would stop and ask us questions, especially on that first day when it wasn’t in the media. They were curious at first and wanted to know what it was all about. So we started talking and explaining. And people were grateful, they said: thank you for doing this.

Bereaved families started coming, like they were making a pilgrimage. They would come with flowers or to write a name. The wall became a focal point for them, a place to go, to see their person’s name there, in public, being recognised. It is imbued with immense meaning and emotion. The wall has provided something for bereaved families and friends, but nothing can replace the people we have lost.

Volunteers at the National Covid Memorial Wall

The most important part for me was that it was us doing it: a grassroots movement of bereaved families and friends. It was not given to us, or chosen for us, it was shaped by us. One person who came said they felt that the deaths from Covid were like the nation’s dirty, little secret, but now, with this memorial, they were finally out in the light.

Losing Steve to Covid-19 in a pandemic was beyond what I could have imagined. When I lost my parents, I grieved in what I’d think of as a normal way. But, with Steve’s death, the isolation was overwhelming. In the period before he died, we were totally separated, I couldn’t be with him. I know that for the last days of his life he was alone in an unnatural environment, with no touch, surrounded by people with their faces covered. That’s not how human beings should be.

I’m so thankful I was permitted to be with him as he died — so many others were denied that. I felt such huge complicated emotions: anger, impotence, guilt, loneliness. I never thought I’d have to go through something like this in isolation. The wall makes a huge statement that this grief is like no other. All those enduring this have our own unique stories, yet we have a collective understanding.

The fundamental call of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign for almost a year was for an independent, judge-led, statutory inquiry. The recent announcement that an inquiry will begin next year is welcome, but we want the inquiry to start much earlier, and for bereaved families to be involved in setting it up. Until this happens, we believe that people will keep on dying.

The wall is a beautiful place for people to come to reflect, to remember and to heal. We have a duty to maintain it and to continue to add names. The Houses of Parliament are right over the river from the wall. We want all MPs, and especially government ministers, to come out and walk along the wall, but very few MPs have come so far. They act like we don’t even exist. There are nice words but no action.

There is something practical and tangible that everyone can do. Please support our campaign. We really need funding to lobby the government and to get publicity for what we are doing. Also, if you possibly can, please go and walk along the wall. It will move you more than words and numbers could.

As a society, we must not forget what has happened. We want this memorial to be permanent, but we don’t want to keep extending it. My fear is that, unless the government listens, that’s what we’ll keep having to do.

Read our updated common questions about funerals during Covid-19 guidance and resources to help cope with grief and loss during Covid-19.

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