Britain reflects on ‘grief and loss’ a year after first lockdown

The lanes of Westminster Bridge are seen with historic buildings in the background.
London’s Westminster Bridge is virtually empty March 24, 2020, the first day of Britain’s lockdown, with the Palace of Westminster in the background and, at right in scaffolding, Big Ben.
(Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

The U.K. has a lot to reflect on.

A year to the day since Prime Minister Boris Johnson first put the country under lockdown to slow the fast-spreading coronavirus, Britain paused Tuesday to remember those who had died of COVID-19 and to reflect on a 12-month period that turned life upside down.

The U.K. has registered more than 126,000 virus-related deaths, the highest pandemic death toll in Europe and one of the highest in the world. The country has spent much of the past year in lockdown.

The country observed a minute’s silence at noon to remember the dead as part of a national day of reflection organized by the end-of-life charity Marie Curie. People are being encouraged to stand on their doorsteps at 8 p.m. with phones, candles and flashlights to signify a “beacon of remembrance.”


Johnson thanked the British public for their “courage, discipline and patience.”

“For the entire British people, it has been an epic of endurance and privation,” Johnson said at a televised news conference. “Of children’s birthday parties canceled, of weddings postponed, of family gatherings of all kinds simply deleted from the diary.

“And worst of all in that time we’ve suffered so many losses. And for so many people, our grief has been made more acute because we have not been able to see our loved ones in their final days, to hold their hands or even to mourn them together.”

Queen Elizabeth II sent a bouquet of flowers to London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where her husband, Prince Philip, was recently treated for a heart condition.

“As we look forward to a brighter future together, today we pause to reflect on the grief and loss that continues to be felt by so many people and families, and pay tribute to the immeasurable service of those who have supported us all over the last year,” she said in an accompanying note.

London’s skyline will turn yellow when landmarks including the London Eye, Trafalgar Square and Wembley Stadium light up at nightfall. Other notable buildings that will be illuminated include Cardiff Castle and Belfast City Hall. Churches and cathedrals plan to toll bells, light thousands of candles and offer prayers.


Few foresaw the scale of death and grief to come when Johnson, in a prime-time televised address on March 23, 2020, issued a “very simple instruction” for people to stay at home.

Johnson, who within days of issuing the stay-at-home order was hospitalized in intensive care with the virus, has faced criticism for delaying the first lockdown. Italy had been the first European country to go into lockdown earlier in March 2020, followed by most of the rest of the continent.

The delay, many argue, led to the U.K. recording the most deaths in Europe during the first wave of the pandemic, despite the valiant efforts of people working in the National Health Service, which has endured its most difficult period since its creation just after World War II.

Further delays in reimposing nationwide lockdowns following the easing of restrictions over the summer and fall have similarly been blamed for exacerbating Britain’s high COVID-19 death toll, especially this year, when a new, more contagious variant of the virus first identified in southeast England became the dominant strain.

Calls are growing, particularly among bereaved families, for the government to back a public inquiry into its handling of the pandemic. Johnson has said one will come but that it would be a distraction now.

Beyond the devastating death toll, the pandemic has affected every aspect of day-to-day life, most evident in the boarded-up shops and the eerily quiet city centers.

Children have spent many months cooped up at home, with their often-agitated parents and siblings, struggling to deal with the realities of life under lockdown.

The pandemic has battered the British economy, which suffered its deepest recession in more than 300 years. Pubs, restaurants, theaters, hair salons and all stores selling nonessential items such as books and footwear have spent much of the past year closed.

The economy remains almost 10% smaller than it was just over a year ago, and there are fears that many businesses won’t able to survive for long once the government starts withdrawing its unprecedented financial support.

There is some hope that the rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines — more than half the adult population has already had one of the two doses they need — will allow lockdown to be eased in the coming weeks.

Johnson insists his government’s plan to lift restrictions in England will be guided by “data, not dates,” but that life could be very much more normal by the height of summer. The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have outlined similar plans.

But confirmed cases are again increasing in much of Europe, and Johnson said Monday that Britain would also likely face a new wave of the pandemic.

“Previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends,” he said, “it washes up on our shores as well.”