It started as an almost guerrilla act of memorialisation. In March, grieving relatives began inscribing red hearts beside a Thameside walkway – one for every person in the UK who died from coronavirus. Now stretching 500 metres, the Covid memorial wall should be made a permanent national landmark, say more than 200 MPs, peers and mayors.
Boris Johnson is facing calls to “make this wall of hearts a, if not the, permanent memorial to the victims of the pandemic” from a cross-party alliance including the mayors of London and Greater Manchester, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham.
Other supporters include the Conservative MPs Peter Bottomley and Edward Leigh, Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, and Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
They have signed a letter to Johnson written by Afzal Khan, the MP for Manchester Gorton who lost six relatives to Covid – three in the UK and three in Pakistan. It argues the wall, which features more than 150,000 hearts, “brings home the scale of the national devastation and grieving process our country is facing”.
In practical terms, the proposal would mean preserving a third of a mile of stonework covered with marker pen and paint behind a screen or lacquer, obtaining planning consent and establishing responsibility for the wall, which appears to be shared between St Thomas’ hospital and Lambeth council. Politically, it would mean accepting an implicit challenge to the government’s pandemic response showcasing the world’s second worst per capita death toll in clear view of the Palace of Westminster.
The prime minister said in May the wall “deeply moved” him when he visited but he favoured a memorial in St Paul’s cathedral, “which will provide a fitting place of reflection in the heart of our capital”.
Work on the wall was initiated in March by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which represents thousands of bereaved families and has been campaigning for an urgent public inquiry. They considered covering the wall in drawings of hands or candles, before settling on hearts. It was never planned as permanent and volunteers have to reinscribe weathered dedications. How to make room for more hearts in the event of fresh waves of Covid is also an issue.
“It is unthinkable that the wall would be taken down when it is so important to so many,” said Matt Fowler, who lost his father Ian, 56, to Covid in April 2020 and helped start the memorial.
“Seeing this support from MPs across parliament for it to be made permanent has been heartening, and we sincerely hope the prime minister will join them.”
Downing Street said it would set up a commission on Covid commemorations in other towns and cities to honour the dead, frontline workers and the creators of the vaccines.
In Birmingham, the city council already has plans for a series of memorial gardens centred on pebble beds, allowing the bereaved to write the name of their loved one on a stone. Trees would be planted two metres apart in a nod to social distancing rules.
Khan said he would approach Manchester city council about local memorials, which he said must be led by the bereaved, with possible locations including Piccadilly Gardens or near the city’s cathedral.
“The traditional processes of bereavement have been hit by the pandemic so having a public space to come together and experience what we have felt in isolation is powerful,” Khan said.
Downing Street has been contacted for comment.