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Sabrina Montgregge has witnessed more than most the grief left behind by each death from Covid. The 28-year-old works in the intensive care unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and has met hundreds of patients and their families during the pandemic. Not all of the patients returned home.
On Saturday, Montgregge was among scores of volunteers diligently hand-painting red hearts on a wall opposite parliament, each representing a person who has died of coronavirus in Britain. “It’s about connecting with the families, reflecting on what has happened, the work of my colleagues,” she said.
Throughout the afternoon, bereaved families also came to the National Covid Memorial Wall by the Thames, holding the red pens they would use to remember their loved ones. Since the wall started last Monday, about 60,000 unique hearts have appeared on the two-metre-high wall.
Organisers expect to reach their target of 150,000 hearts by the middle of this week, reflecting the number who have died with Covid-19 marked on a death certificate in Britain (a figure running higher than official government statistics).
The country has so far recorded over 149,000 such deaths, the largest toll in Europe.
Some visitors had come at the behest of others. Trainee solicitor Yasmin Kibble, 25, lived nearby in south London and had been sent by her Mancunian mother to memorialise her uncle who died almost a year ago from Covid. “My mum sent me here because she’s stuck up there,” she said.Bereaved relatives have left their mark. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Matt Fowler lost his father, Ian, aged 56, on 13 April last year after he fell ill on 19 March, during the period when critics say the government’s hesitancy in ordering the first lockdown may have caused thousands of deaths.
It was Fowler who began the memorial wall last Monday morning, painting the first of 15,000 hearts drawn that day. He never expected the groundswell of support it has received, a reaction some feel is in response to an absence of official public memorials.
Despite helping conceive the commemoration, Fowler admits to struggling to digest the sea of hearts stretching along the wall from Westminster Bridge, opposite Big Ben, towards Lambeth Bridge, 500 metres away. “When you see all the hearts and think what each one represents, it’s absolutely frightening,” he said.
Already there is talk of making the memorial permanent. Discussions have taken place between officials from Lambeth council and organisers about the prospect – quite a feat for a project that started days earlier without council permission.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and shadow trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, are among Labour MPs who have visited.
The wall has caught the attention of the public. Pat Smith, 57, from East Sussex had come to pay her respects. Her mother died shortly before the lockdown and she empathised with those who have battled loss and grief over the past year. Finishing her 15th heart, she said: “In my own way I just wanted to come down, to get involved, to remember.”