Bereaved family and friends of Covid-19 victims have begun work on a memorial to their loved ones, painting the first of nearly 150,000 red hearts – one for everyone in Britain who has died thus far – on a wall facing the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
The mural is expected to stretch for hundreds of metres along the southern bank of the River Thames outside St Thomas’ hospital, where Boris Johnson was treated for a severe case of Covid last year.
“This is an outpouring of love. Each heart is individually hand-painted; utterly unique, just like the loved ones we’ve lost. And, like the scale of our collective loss, this memorial is going to be enormous,” said Matt Fowler, whose 56-year-old father, Ian, died last April.
Fowler co-founded the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which is setting up the memorial. He was the first to paint a heart on Monday morning. “We think it will take several days to complete and it is going to stretch for more than half a kilometre,” he said.
“We know not everyone can come down here to see it but we really hope this can become a focal point for remembering this national tragedy. We have placed it at the heart of our capital so that the government never loses sight of the personal stories at the heart of all this.”
The mural is clearly visible to MPs and peers, sitting directly opposite parliament and facing the outdoor terraces used by parliamentarians.
The prime minister has promised a “fitting and permanent” commemoration once the pandemic is over. Last week, many people marked the anniversary of the first national lockdown by lighting candles and holding moments of silence as a way of remembering the dead.
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which has nearly 3,000 members, said the prime minister had encouraged people to “personally reflect in whatever way feels right for them” – adding that this was partly their inspiration for taking the matter into their own hands.
The group said it encouraged the creation of other monuments and it hoped its memorial would become recognised as the nation’s official commemoration in time. It has also been among those pressing for an immediate public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, backed by legal power to compel people to give evidence, in order to prevent further deaths.
No 10 has dismissed such calls, saying there will be an “appropriate time in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this global pandemic”.
“To get real answers we absolutely need an independent and judge-led statutory public inquiry – where the government doesn’t get to mark its own homework,” the campaigners have previously said.
“And an inquiry that reports its findings in a year or so won’t save lives in the coming months. So it’s critical that it has an urgent first phase which reports back quickly so that the lessons can be applied immediately and prevent deaths as the virus spikes again.”
The official UK death toll stands at more than 125,000. But the group said it was using the method favoured by the Office for National Statistics, which includes cases where Covid is mentioned on the death certificates of UK residents.
Bereaved family members and other volunteers began the work on Monday, using paint pens for the hearts and cleaning existing marks off the wall, organisers said. The group has said it has notified several authorities, including the police and local government, and will “restore the site at an appropriate time”.