Prime Minister Boris Johnson pauses to remember the thousands of lives lost to Britain’s coronavirus two years after the country was plunged into lockdown: “You must stay home.”
The strict lockdown imposed on March 23, 2020, closed offices, schools, restaurants, shops and playgrounds, and those who did not work only for essential work were allowed outside for exercise and limited work. Stricter measures lasted for about three months and on-off restrictions continued until earlier this year.
Civil liberties have been restored but newly confirmed cases have risen again, with Wednesday designated as the day of the epidemic that killed nearly 164,000 people in the UK, the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe after Russia.
Britain was one of the deepest economic recessions in the developed world as the epidemic shut down part of the economy.
Members of the bereaved family tied yellow ribbons on Westminster Bridge next to Parliament on Wednesday, near the walls of a memorial to those affected by the epidemic with thousands of hand-painted hearts. A minute of silence is observed at noon (1200GMT) and at 8 pm they are encouraged to show flowers or light windows.
“Those who lost to Kovid will never be far from our hearts and minds, and today we are reflected as a nation,” Johnson said in a message on the anniversary.
Johnson, who was hospitalized in intensive care with COVID-19 in April 2020, said he saw “first-hand heroic efforts” by medical personnel. He paid tribute to “them, the mourning counselor, charity workers and friends and family, taking a break to remember those we lost.”
Under pressure from the bereaved family, Johnson agreed to conduct a public inquiry into his government’s conduct of the epidemic, led by a retired senior judge. The hearing is set to begin in a few weeks.
Critics say Johnson was slow to impose a lockdown because a new respiratory virus, first seen in China, began to spread in early 2020 and thousands of lives were lost due to delays.
Johnson faltered again as the infection increased in the fall of 2020 but eventually ordered a second lockdown. The weary British suffered a third lockdown in early 2021, when the more contagious delta alternative put Britain at the center of the European epidemic.
Months of gradually relaxing restrictions followed until England lifted the mask-wearing rules, mandatory self-isolation for infectious diseases and other remaining restrictions, even Omicron, the most transmissible variant yet, entered. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have relaxed more slowly.
“We’ve had big calls during the epidemic,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Scientists agree that a breakthrough was the UK’s rapid and widely supported immunization program. About 92% of people 12 years of age or older have two doses of a vaccine and two-thirds have a third, booster shot. The fourth dose is unprotected and is being given to those aged 75 or over.
Vaccination means that although cases are on the rise again in the UK – driven by Amicron’s subvariet which spreads more easily – hospitalization and death are at pre-existing peaks.
Cases are also on the rise in France, Italy and Germany, and the World Health Organization’s head of Europe, Dr Hans Cluj, has accused European countries of lifting sanctions too quickly.
Julie Pierce, head nurse at Mary Curie Health Charitable Organization, which hosted Wednesday’s commemoration, said the anniversary was an opportunity to reflect and connect with others.
“While some people’s lives have begun to return to normal, millions of people are still living with traumatic events and are unable to mourn properly,” Pierce said. “Let us take the time to connect and show support to the millions of bereaved, and remember the family, friends, neighbors and colleagues we have lost over the past two years.”
Follow all AP stories about the epidemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.