Emotional debate over UK Covid memorial risks dividing bereaved | Coronavirus

An emotionally charged dispute over how best to memorialise Covid in the UK risks dividing people bereaved over the course of the pandemic.

A split has emerged over whether a red or yellow heart should become the long-term symbol of loss, and over the date of an annual commemoration. The crux of the dispute is a claim from some people who lost loved ones to Covid that their experience “needs to be treated differently” than those bereaved during Covid.

The people who prefer the red heart act as custodians of the National Covid Memorial Wall, the mural of more than 200,000 red hearts – one for each person who died from Covid – opposite parliament in London, which was originally started by a bereaved group campaigning for justice through political pressure and a public inquiry.

The custodians said this week they want the red symbol to represent Covid bereavement and “move away from the yellow heart”. In a statement on their Facebook page, The UK Wall of Grief and Love, they said: “As we know, a Covid death is different to any other death, and needs to be treated separately when looking at memorials.”

Those who back the yellow heart dispute this and consider the yellow version a non-political symbol of loss, while the red heart on the memorial wall can be seen as political.

They are part of groups such as the Yellow Hearts to Remember group – which is dedicated to people who died with Covid or from other causes. Early in the pandemic, people started displaying yellow hearts in windows as a symbol of remembrance. It was inspired, in one case at least, by families who used to tie yellow ribbons round trees to remember people gone to war.

People have erected yellow heart memorials on hillsides, in shopping centres and on walls and the symbol has also been adopted in the US to represent Covid loss.

The sensitivity of the rift is exacerbated because there is overlap between the groups’ members.

The wall custodians also want a national remembrance day to be on 29 March – the date that the first heart was put on the Covid Memorial wall in 2021. Others believe 23 March, the anniversary of the first lockdown, is more significant.

The tension emerged this week after the launch of a government consultation into a national memorial. The UK Commission on Covid Commemoration, chaired by Nicky Morgan, this week asked whether there “should be a symbol to commemorate Covid-19 in the same way that a poppy represents Remembrance Sunday”, and for views on the most appropriate date for a national day of remembrance. It also asked whether there should be a commemorative Covid coin and whether a museum of Covid is needed. The consultation closes on 5 December.

The position of the red heart advocates has caused “a great deal of anger and upset” according to Covid-19 Families UK, which has 5,000 members bereaved by Covid and other causes. It is one of several Covid groups that wants any symbol to be a yellow heart, although it also supports the retention of the wall of red hearts as a permanent memorial.

Asked about the call for the red heart to become the national symbol of Covid loss, Deborah Lewis, who founded the group after her father, Barry Lewis, died from Covid in April 2020, said: “It is causing unnecessary angst between different groups when it shouldn’t be. We should all be united together.”

John Wilson, a bereavement counsellor, said it was “causing quite a lot of anxiety and distress”.

“People are concerned about a fallout and a split,” he said. “They just want everyone to be accommodated.”

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Asked about the call for the red heart to be adopted, he said he “compassionately” understood where they were coming from, but added: “There is very little difference between someone bereaved from Covid and [those bereaved] during lockdowns when they were under the same restrictions on hospital visiting and funerals.”

​​Another group called Yellow Hearts to Remember said: “We have contacted the group running the wall about this, letting them know about the importance of the yellow heart to us all and asking them to reconsider their proposals.”

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which instigated the wall and has been recognised as a core participant at the public inquiry, has distanced itself from the position of the wall custodians, saying “the views of all bereaved families are equally valid”.

In a joint statement with Yellow Hearts to Remember, it said neither group had a stance on how best to commemorate those lost to Covid-19.

“Everyone handles grief differently, and whilst Yellow Hearts have been there to provide memorialisation and support for families, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice have been a campaigning outlet, focused on securing an inquiry,” they said.

“Many families have chosen to join both groups … we both recognise that the yellow heart has long been adapted as a symbol of Covid loss both nationally and internationally, and that the National Covid Memorial Wall is internationally recognised as perhaps the most collective, grassroots expression of Covid loss in the world. We hope the commemoration will take this into account by making the wall permanent.”