FRANCES HARDY: While 8,000 football fans pack Wembley, families still can’t mourn the dead with dignity. That’s why this grieving writer says the Government rules are an affront to humanity
They are two photographs taken barely a week apart — but what a scandal they expose.
In one, published in the Mail yesterday, we see a group of jubilant supporters among the 8,000-strong crowd at Wembley; crammed cheek-by-jowl, some of them cheering, others mask-less and a few — heedless of social distancing rules — actually hugging.
The other, taken the previous weekend and again published on these pages, showed our Queen at her husband’s funeral.
A tiny masked figure, diminished by grief, she sat in painful isolation in her pew in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
Unlike the supporters watching the Carabao Cup final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, Her Majesty observed the Covid rules both in spirit and letter.
8,000 supporters of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were allowed into Wembley Stadium for the Carabou Cup Final
And as a nation we felt a visceral pang of sorrow, not just because she was bereft, but because it seemed wrong that she should be so starkly alone.
A 94-year-old woman denied the comfort of the close proximity of a son, daughter or grandchild and, unintentionally, representative of the unnecessary suffering of Britons who have experienced loss this past year of Covid.
The fans at Wembley were permitted to attend the cup final as part of a pilot scheme, the biggest crowd for a sporting event since the first lockdown began in March last year.
The deal was that they took a lateral flow test before and after the game and remained socially distanced in the stadium. But many of them, careless of this directive — and apparently unimpeded by stewards — flouted the rules.
Nobody wants to enforce interminable social austerity on a nation already jaded by successive lockdowns, but there is no humanity or justice in the contrast between the two images. We seem to have lost entirely our compassion for those who are grieving.
While those fans can celebrate their teams, hordes of drinkers can gather in pub gardens, shoppers can amble along crowded High Streets and sunseekers congregate on beaches, government diktat decrees that just 30 people can gather to say their socially-distanced farewells to loved ones.
Yet sporting events and social gatherings are recreational. Funerals are sacred.
From April 12, 15 mourners were allowed at wakes or other ‘commemorative events’; from May 17, that number will increase to 30. But there will be no change to the cap on those actually attending a funeral until June 21.
And mourners must not hug or touch anyone outside their household or bubble, which seems — now we have widespread testing and vaccines available — inhumane.
A tiny masked figure, diminished by grief, the Queen sat in painful isolation in her pew in St George’s Chapel, Windsor
A year ago I experienced first-hand the inequity of Covid funeral rules.
Just six of us gathered in a sun-dappled cemetery to say our goodbyes to our Granny Madeline last April.
Her coffin was lowered into its plot and we stooped, one by one, to place our white roses on top of it. And as I watched my daughter Amy’s face crumple into tears I had to quell my impulse to reach out and hug her. Because Amy, 29, and I do not live in the same household, we cried singly and silently, separated by necessity; bound by a communion of grief.
This was the start of the first lockdown; a time of national disquiet and fear when we understood little about Covid. Tests were limited. No vaccine existed. Constraints on funerals were more draconian than now.
Amy’s grandmother — known as Granny Madeline to her wide, extended family, including six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren — was 98 when she died.
During almost a century on earth she had accrued many friends but not one of them could say their prayers at her grave side. Six mourners are scant few for a life so long and one so richly-loved.
Indeed, Granny’s only surviving son, my ex-partner Rick, had to pare down his farewell to the barest minimum.
There was no formal service; no hymns, prayers or eulogy — it was considered too hazardous to invite the elderly and young to gather inside for a funeral.
So the simple ceremony took place in the open air and we remained the requisite two metres apart.
That was how it was in those early days of the first lockdown. But since then, scandalously little has changed to bring comfort to the bereaved as they continue to mourn in small, isolated groups.
Deaths from Covid are in sharp decline and almost 34 million people have had their first dose of vaccine, but ministers refuse to relax these rules.
Thirty mourners. It is a perverse and arbitrary figure when you consider that the churches and chapels where many of them congregate are permitted to host Sunday services for up to 100 worshippers, if buildings are deemed sufficiently large to allow social distancing rules to be observed.
And here is the nub of my objection: there is no method in this unfeeling madness. The Government, in its scatter-gun approach to the lifting of lockdown, has prioritised sports fans, pub regulars, festival goers and night-clubbers, but not spared a single thought for those whose only solace at a time of loss is to share their grief with loved ones.
Next weekend 1,000 fans will be allowed to gather in Sheffield to watch the World Snooker Championships, and 6,000 revellers will get the green light to pack nightclubs in Liverpool for two successive nights.
Later in the month 4,000 fans will attend the Brit Awards — unmasked and not socially distanced — in the O2 Arena.
These are part of the Events Research Programme to gather data on how mass participation events can take place safely when we’re out of lockdown.
But why did no one make funerals — surely low risk in comparison to sports arenas and night clubs — a priority?
The Queen stands alone as she watches Prince Philip’s coffin being carried by soldiers on its final journey into St George’s Chapel, Windsor for the funeral of her beloved husband
As the Mail has reported, at least 80,000 cremations and burials will be conducted under the Covid curbs before June 21.
We cannot call ourselves a civilised society when we allow such inconsistencies to persist. We can no longer force families, at the darkest times of their lives, to make invidious choices between those who are permitted to grieve communally and those who must be excluded.
Funerals, after all, form a vital part of the grieving process. They allow both a loved one to be mourned and a life to be celebrated; and to do so surrounded by all those who shared their affection for the deceased is a comfort at a time of bleakness.
Of course, we should be circumspect about the relaxing of any Covid restriction, but we should not be heaping duress on top of pain.
There are judicious measures we can take: lateral flow tests would both reassure and reduce the need for social distancing. For there is nothing more desolate — nothing more of an affront to humanity — than a funeral in which hugs are forbidden.
If our Government needs more persuading let it consider the funeral of Eileen Martins, 89, whose loving family consisted of 15 grandchildren and as many great-grandchildren.
As her daughter Maureen Dedman told the Mail this week, many relatives had to watch Mrs Martin’s funeral service on their phones from the crematorium car park in Brentwood, Essex. Even more were denied this small comfort by social distancing rules.
‘I don’t think we’ve got closure or given her the best send-off,’ said Maureen, who was not able to sit with her own daughters, encapsulating the tragedy of these senseless restrictions.
She makes a salient point.
If we cannot honour the dead, we feel we have cheated them. Our grieving has not been given formal expression — and we feel we have betrayed those we love most.
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