One hundred thousand people are dead in the UK following a diagnosis of Covid-19. One hundred thousand families and friendship groups, mine included, left with a gap. One hundred thousand people who, when they took their test, just like so many of us have done, hoped that they would be one of the milder cases. One hundred thousand people whose hopes and prayers were not answered.
One hundred thousand is about the number of people that live in my constituency, which incidentally had one of the highest death rates in the country. One hundred thousand people dead is hard to imagine, but it is as if every single street and every single home in the busy, overcrowded, metropolitan city area that I represent has been emptied, abandoned, a radio still tinkling out The Archers theme tune, a cat jumping on to a table wondering where everyone has gone. It is dystopian.
One hundred thousand people are dead. All those zeroes can start to feel meaningless, every day a new number telling us hundreds and hundreds more have perished. Sometimes it seems we have already become immune to the reality; we have started to expect these deaths, and even worse, we have started to accept them.
And then comes the news – as was the case in my home this week – that someone we knew and loved, someone we laughed and joked with at a family celebration this time last year, has become just another number in the death toll. Your person, just like so many other people, is one of the numbers that scroll past us on the evening news. But this time, you remember they're not just another number; this person was well and full of life and definitely had many good years in front of them.
At the beginning of the crisis, I bulk bought condolence cards, ready for months of writing to constituents who had lost loved ones and were in pain. The very first death I handled was a lovely man called Wally. I always sat next to him and his wife at our local Christmas carols each year. Wally was a fit and healthy man, aged 75. His wife had put him in an ambulance one evening when he was struggling to breath and she never saw him again.
The level of trauma this caused meant that she was terrified of her home; it felt infected, and was also a prison for her, alone, as she wouldn’t let her children into the house to comfort and care for her. I spoke to her every day for a week, trying to offer advice and help to link her with services.
After my first conversation I put down the phone and burst into tears. That evening, touched by that single death, I wrote individual letters to my husband and children in case I died suddenly. I told my friends to do the same. The deaths in springtime seemed new and terrifying, each one a personal pain. How could someone be there and then just be gone?
This question is hard enough for people to process in cases of road accidents, heart attacks, homicides, or any sudden deaths; it is hard to compute the suddenness of it. And yet we all are computing 100,000 sudden deaths as if they were inevitable. But they weren’t. There are people dead who shouldn’t be. The people I know who have died of Covid shouldn’t be gone; they were essentially healthy adults in their 70s.
This week the government seemed to be trying to lean on the idea that British people are too old and too overweight, and that is why our death rate here is so high. This seems like just another attempt to push the management of this crisis from the government onto the people of this country; in this case they are blaming the dead themselves, which I am sure is a comfort to their grieving relatives. The government must answer for the many zeroes. One hundred thousand British people are dead.
I know there is a need to be optimistic and to present the country with hope. Yes, of course, I am happy about us rolling out the vaccine. One cannot help but notice that this, a successful logistical element of the crisis, has been handled by the NHS and public sector organisations not working to build up a profit. Comparatively, I am still – every single week – taking complaints about the test and trace service. A constituent of mine in December tested positive for Covid and not a single one of her contacts was followed up. Not one. One hundred thousand people are dead.
The government is going to have to answer the question; would all those who are gone have died if they lived in a different country? I don’t think MPs in New Zealand are bulk-buying condolence cards. Would my constituents have been better off had they been born in South Korea or Singapore? For weeks, the UK has had one of the worst death rates in the world per million people in the population. Truly world beating, Mr Prime Minister. The UK being in the top 10, week in week out, cannot just be brushed aside with talk about the vaccine and ministers mumbling about an ageing population. One hundred thousand people are dead.
I don’t want to find blame. I want to find answers that can improve this trajectory and improve it fast. I want to be sure that this never happens again. Could we not have predicted things would be more deadly in the winter, or that there might be mutations of the virus? Could we have planned for schools more effectively? Could we have traced more people? Could we have done better? Could my people have been saved?
Tragically, we were always going to lose lives to Covid-19, of this there is no question. But 100,000 people in the UK are now missing from their homes. Was that always inevitable? One hundred thousand people are dead.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley