When my sister told me that my dad may not be coming off his ventilator, I didn’t believe her. I insisted on speaking to the doctors myself. How could someone so fit and healthy be beaten by this virus?
He and my stepmother had both tested positive for Covid-19 27 days earlier. It was actually her we’d been more worried about, as she’s clinically vulnerable. He cycled all the time, and he ran marathons all over the world when he was younger. And then suddenly I was by his hospital bedside. I know it was a blessing that we even got to be with him, but dressed in our protective gear, it felt like something out of a horror movie. As I cried, tears smeared my goggles. Snot ran into my mask. My stepmum (“bonus mum”) tried to rest her face by his, but her visor kept getting in the way.
No one should have to die like that.
My dad lived life to the full. Keeping fit was only one part of that. He had loved travelling ever since he put years of savings from doing a Saturday job into buying a flight on Concord to New York. It was no small feat for a boy from a Merseyside family with not much money. He ended up travelling to every continent, even Antarctica. He visited me in Canada, where I live, and my sister Eleanor in Brazil.
He and my stepmum did the local am-dram panto every year. He had an incredible, dry sense of humour and a famous poker face. He was a mortgage adviser and built his business from the ground up. Helping first-time buyers in our town, especially during the credit crunch, was not an easy job, but he was well regarded by his customers. And he was the type to spontaneously help out my friends with their various start-up businesses. He was so special to all of us.
More than 127,000 people have been killed by the virus in this country. All their families have their own stories like mine – they were all special.
And that, I think, is why people are so angry about those terrible words that Boris Johnson is reported to have shouted at his team: “No more fucking lockdowns. Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”
The prime minister has denied he made the comments but if it turns out that he did, it’s the manner in which people we love have been dehumanised that I find so shocking. It makes the deaths of enormous numbers of people, each of them as important as my dad, seem totally irrelevant. It has often seemed as if Johnson wanted to prioritise keeping the country open. Voters may hold him responsible for lockdown, but they might not blame him for a high death toll: many people just see all the terrible effects of the pandemic as a freak of nature. In a horrible way, it makes sense that the prime minister would prefer to “let the bodies pile high”, even if it was just a figure of speech.
My dad was incredibly careful about the Covid regulations – he wanted to protect his wife – and we can only guess he got infected at the supermarket. If a third lockdown had come just a little earlier, the chances of him getting the virus would have been so much smaller.
The government has always insisted that on each occasion it carefully balanced the different options before making a rational decision in order to stop the virus. But here lies a telling point about the revolting words the prime minister is alleged to have said: they would suggest he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to impose lockdown again, even though it was key to saving lives.
Last summer thousands of families bereaved by the virus started campaigning for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. I got involved with them because their Facebook group is an amazingly supportive place, where thousands of us who have lost loved ones to Covid can listen to each other, share stories and also our anger. But the group’s campaign for an inquiry is really important too. If that inquiry actually had begun back in 2020, when it was demanded, it might have forced the government to learn some lessons quickly. It might have made them lock down earlier. It might have saved my dad.
Life and death decisions were made by the government in a chaotic way. The people responsible must be held accountable, and that means a public inquiry. Such an inquiry will help us determine what Johnson and his government’s true attitude was, be it in alleged angry words or in crucial meetings throughout this crisis. We need to know how such moments impacted the government’s actions.
It won’t bring my dad back, but that’s not the point. The UN says that pandemics are going to happen more often, and kill more people. So we need to learn lessons from what our leaders got wrong with Covid.
In the meantime, I have incredible memories of my dad: at the Empire State building, celebrating his 60th birthday as my step-brother Matt performed a rap for him. My dad laughing and smiling: he loved Matt’s rapping. It was probably the happiest moment of his life. At the funeral Matt read those same words, this time as an elegy. We were crying, but we were still laughing at the jokes.
Every single person who has been lost to this pandemic was someone with a name, with a story, with people who grieved them and who think about them every single day – like my father Keith Brian. They all mattered.