I used to have a joke with my mum where I’d call her the rubber ball, because she always seemed to bounce back from any illness she had. My mum was called Beryl Harris, and she was 86 when she died of Covid-19. She died in hospital on 18 December last year – the same day as the non-socially distanced Christmas party at No 10.
We had had a terrible few years already. My stepfather Brian had developed an aggressive form of vascular dementia that meant he deteriorated very quickly; he was diagnosed when he was 74 and died when he was 78. That really took its toll on my mum and me, not least emotionally. My mum was just coming out of that very bleak period, and feeling far more positive about things – she was getting her zest for life back again, and it was really lovely to see.
Late last year, she began feeling unwell – she had anaemia, for which she needed a blood transfusion. I wasn’t particularly worried, because this had all happened before – so she went into hospital, had the transfusion, all was going well, and she was just about to be discharged. Then I had a call from one of the nurses to say Mum had been in contact with somebody with Covid, and they were going to test her. Two hours later I got another call to say she had tested positive. I spoke to her right away, and she was a wreck. She was so frightened. She just kept saying, “I don’t want to die.”
I kept telling her, “You’ll be all right, Mum: you’re a rubber ball, you’ll bounce back from this too”, and she started laughing a little bit. But she deteriorated very quickly. When I rang to speak to her the next day, she was in and out of consciousness, and obviously wasn’t able to speak. On the third day, I spoke to her and she sounded like she was rallying, she sounded quite chirpy – she was sitting up in bed, and we laughed about how bad hospital food was. I thought, “She’s going to pull through.” That was 17 December. In the early hours of the 18th, at 1.20am, I got a call from the hospital to say that Mum had passed away.
My mum lived in Wellesbourne in Warwickshire, and because I’m in south London, and we were both abiding by the rules, I hadn’t been able to go and visit her. Mum was very keen for me to abide by the rules, she was very worried about contracting Covid – she was steely in her determination to shield. So many people had to shield, not just older people but vulnerable people. And even for those who weren’t technically shielding, there was so much loneliness during the lockdowns, and such an impact on all of our mental health – not least at Christmas.
In this context, the news of the party has just been staggering. The initial reports were bad enough, but then the leaked footage from the press briefing rehearsal has just made it so much worse. I had to watch it several times, because the first time I was just so stunned that it didn’t sink in. Allegra Stratton and everyone else in that room having a jolly time laughing about their “cheese and wine” party that had taken place just hours after my mum had died.
The constant denials from the government over the past few weeks have just made it 10 times worse. If the prime minister had just put his hands up when the story first broke, admitted it and apologised – it would never be enough for all the people who have lost loved ones, but it would be something. But the fact that not only Boris Johnson but his ministers seem to be lying to our faces about this – it’s abhorrent.
The government is supposed to have a duty of care to this country, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, something like this comes to light. To say I’m angry is an understatement, but I’m saddened as well. I didn’t personally vote for this government, but some people did and they put their trust in it. The weight of that responsibility is not being taken seriously. The government should be holding itself to much higher standards than those it demands of everyone else, but it is not even playing by its own rules.
I joined the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign in February, because I thought it was important to bring all these different voices together. So many people have their own very tragic stories – and one thing we can actually do is join together, call for a proper independent inquiry, and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again. These are people’s lives we’re talking about, and we’ve had enough of Johnson’s platitudes.
It’s coming up to the first anniversary of my mum’s death. This government really needs to be brought to account. Questions need to be answered, and answered truthfully, about what happened last Christmas.