Boris Johnson has made a solo visit under cover of darkness to the National Covid Memorial Wall, infuriating bereaved families who have been asking for weeks for him to “walk the wall” and meet them there.
Johnson was spotted at the wall on Tuesday night, a day after allegations – which he denies – that he made remarks to the effect he would rather let “bodies pile high” than announce another lockdown.
Matt Fowler, a co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told the Daily Mirror it was a “cynical and insincere move” coming after several requests for a meeting.
On Thursday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said the prime minister had met bereaved families in person and virtually and that he was not trying to avoid them, but implied there may be legal reasons for not meeting Fowler’s organisation. “The prime minister has said he’s happy to meet them at an appropriate time to do so, and once the legal proceedings have concluded – that he’s not deliberately trying to avoid meeting them,” he said.
But Bereaved Families for Justice say that any pre-action in relation to their demands for a public inquiry, along the lines of the inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, is not the same as litigation and therefore does not prevent a meeting on legal grounds.
Pressed on the matter, Johnson’s spokesperson said he was “not aware he [the PM] had legal advice on this”, suggesting it was a political choice not to meet the group.
Fowler said: “For weeks we’ve asked him to come to the wall and meet bereaved families. He’s refused to even acknowledge our request. Then, the day after it’s [alleged] he said he’d let ‘bodies pile high’ he makes a late evening visit under cover of darkness. This is a cynical and insincere move that is deeply hurtful. Our invitation for him to walk the wall with families who’ve lost loved ones is still open.”
The Labour MP Chris Matheson was among those who said they saw the prime minister at around dusk. “I saw him there as I walked home. There was no press, just his security officers. I nodded and said hello and went on my way,” he told HuffPost UK.
The wall has been transformed into a public mural painted with an estimated 150,000 hearts commemorating victims of the pandemic. It stretches for almost 500 metres between Lambeth and Westminster bridges near the Houses of Parliament.
Among those who have visited it is the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who described it as “profoundly moving”. Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Conservative party in Scotland, has also been to the wall.
Bereaved families wrote to the prime minister on 21 April inviting him to meet them there but he did not respond.
On Wednesday Johnson came under repeated fire over the alleged “bodies” remark. Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National party in the House of Commons, said many people would find the alleged remarks, reported by ITV’s Robert Peston as being witnessed by two sources, as “utterly, utterly sickening”.
Johnson challenged Blackford to “produce the author, the person who claims to have heard it, because I can’t find them”.
“He says that they’re willing to go oath. Perhaps they’re sitting somewhere in this building, I rather doubt it because I didn’t say those words,” Johnson said. “What I do believe is that a lockdown is a miserable, miserable thing and I did everything I could to try to protect the British public throughout the pandemic, to protect them from lockdowns, but also to protect them from disease. We grieve, as I know the whole house grieves, for every family that has lost a loved one.”
Downing Street said Johnson had offered his “deepest condolences” to all the bereaved and had visited the wall on Tuesday “in private for quiet reflection”. It said the prime minister continued to meet the bereaved but that “there are ongoing legal proceedings” relating to the Bereaved Families for Justice group.