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Covid-19: National Memorial

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the creation of a permanent national memorial to those who lost their lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and to those who risked their lives to save a great many others.

My Lords, while the Government’s focus is on protecting lives, there is none the less the need to come together as a nation to mourn those who have sadly died during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Prime Minister announced the establishment of a UK commission on Covid commemoration to consider how to remember those whom we have lost and to commemorate what we have all been through. We will set out the membership of the commission and the terms of reference in due course.

I thank the Minister very much for his reply. Does he agree that, when it comes to creating a national memorial in due course, it will be possible to commemorate the courageous actions during the pandemic of doctors, nurses, medical staff, specialists and members of the emergency services and the Armed Forces, all of whom risked their lives in order to save the lives of a great many others?

I strongly agree with my noble friend. Already, of course, in a striking gesture, Her Majesty the Queen awarded the George Cross to the National Health Service across all parts of the United Kingdom. However, as my noble friend asked, the commission will also consider how we can remember the courage of countless working people and volunteers, not just in the NHS but the Armed Forces, delivery drivers, transport staff, pharmacists and teachers—it is invidious to name just some of them; they are legion —who have put themselves out to serve this nation.

My Lords, on these Benches we fully support preserving the Covid-19 national memorial wall across the river. It is a people’s memorial and every heart there represents a beloved person lost to their family and friends. So I ask the Government to work with the stakeholders involved to preserve that wall because, whatever and however the formal memorial is planned—quite rightly, it must be a national memorial that covers everybody affected by the pandemic —does the Minister agree that this is not a choice between one or the other?

My Lords, we all need to find ways to remember. My aunt died in the Spanish flu pandemic, which was a lifelong sadness to my mother, 70 years after her death. Memories of this pandemic will last equally long and bite equally deep, as the noble Baroness said, in many personal ways. We are aware of the call for the memorial wall to become a permanent national memorial and we welcome the discussions being led by Lambeth Council on this.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is perhaps a bit premature to decide on one national memorial at the moment, as we are far from near the end of this pandemic? Does he know about the memorial forests initiative, whereby people can plant a tree in memory of somebody they know? That campaign has the additional benefit that people can access it online—they do not have to go to London to pay remembrance. Does he think that is worth promoting more generally to the public?

The noble Baroness of course makes a very good point; I would always commend the planting of trees. We have received a very large number of views and suggestions from parliamentarians, as we have heard today, and the public on how this period should be remembered and commemorated, which we will pass on to the commission as it is established. I assure noble Lords that it will give full consideration to all initiatives and ideas and provide recommendations to the Prime Minister.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we owe it to the dead, as a memorial, to find out how this pandemic began? I declare an interest in having co-authored a book on the topic.

My Lords, I do agree, although that is obviously not entirely under the control of Her Majesty’s Government. However, there are billions of people across the world who will need to be satisfied and have their minds put at rest in the way my noble friend asks.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that perhaps one of the best memorials to those who have died, and those who may still die, from this virus would be that we are better prepared for the next one?

Yes, we should always seek to be better prepared for everything in life. When we have the inquiry, I have no doubt there will be lessons to be learned by this Government, and I agree with the noble Baroness that the Houses of Parliament and the whole community will want to learn every lesson.

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord fully answered the question from my noble friend Lady McIntosh. If we are to be prepared for this eventuality, are we preparing ourselves for those eventualities that we might not yet be able to foresee? Will the Government look at their contingency arrangements—I declare my interests in the register on this—to make sure that they report regularly and in full to Parliament on the mitigations in place for each of the risks on the national risk register?

My Lords, the noble Lord is an indefatigable—I am not sure that I can say that word with the current state of my voice—advocate of the national risk register, and I accept where he is coming from. Obviously, there are certain unknown unknowns that are difficult to know, but I absolutely accept the spirit behind his question.

My Lords, the question has been raised about trying to prevent mortality from a future epidemic. The present epidemic is largely due to—or at least made much worse by—the fact that 71% of British people over the age of 70 are obese, and obesity and Covid are a fatal combination. If we want to prevent future mortalities, we have to get the nation to slim down. The Prime Minister has raised the whole question of reducing obesity by himself taking three stone off and advocating that that is what we should all be doing.

My Lords, my noble friend lays a gentle stiletto between my ribs. Apart from the humorous side of it, there is a very serious side to what my noble friend says. There is an unequivocal connection in the terms that he describes, which each of us should bear in mind and which we should all be well aware of.

My Lords, are not nurses and those working in care homes among those who gave most to save people during the pandemic? Would it not be a worthy way of recognising that to give them all a decent pay settlement?

My Lords, I am not going to debate pay policy from the Dispatch Box, but I will take the noble Lord’s comments—to which I heard some assent in the House—and pass them on to colleagues in government.

My Lords, I am very taken with the idea of planting trees; it has been done in other parts of the world. In the years to come, there will be many more victims of Covid-19, and it would mean that anybody in future could have a tree planted, and that would help with the greening project ahead of us as well.

My Lords, again I see a wonderful unity across the House, which I do not always sense, on the idea of planting trees, and I am sure this will be something that the commission will very much consider.