London, United Kingdom – When Ozel Ekrem last saw her father alive on March 8 last year, a brisk spring day, he was in the garden, tending to a barbecue.
Arif Niyazi, a British-Cypriot restaurateur from Birmingham was a happy-go-lucky character and known to regularly defy the cold English weather.
“I told him: ‘Come inside dad, it’s too cold to do a barbecue’,” Ekrem told Al Jazeera. “But you can’t tell a Cypriot when to do a barbecue or not.”
Later that month, the 60-year-old father died in hospital after being infected with the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “I couldn’t visit him in the hospital. We weren’t able to do a proper funeral. I don’t feel like I’ve said goodbye to my dad. For now, we’re trapped in this alternate reality. When the pandemic is over, I think it will hit us again. He was a really great person. How is my dad gone?”
Niyazi was one of more than 100,000 victims of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, a staggering death toll reached before any other country in Europe, according to official figures published by the health department on Tuesday.
‘A horrible way to go’
Another one of those victims was Jani Abbs-Brown, a teacher who died last week at the age of 62, four days after testing positive for COVID-19.
“She was one of the kindest people you would meet and very generous,” said Ned Abbs-Brown, her son, one of three children that she adopted. “She was very passionate about literature and poetry. The walls of the house were full of books.”
But the circumstances surrounding her death are proving difficult to accept for the family.
“It was a really horrible way to go,” said Ned. “She couldn’t move or open her eyes and she was struggling to breathe – all she could do was lift her hand. But I think it was preventable and that makes me angry.
“How is the government only just closing the borders now? I think it’s a real failure of leadership. She will never get the chance to see me grow up, get a house and get married.”
The UK now has the fifth-highest death toll globally – after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico – and reported a further 1,631 deaths and 20,089 new cases on Tuesday.
The 100,162 deaths registered so far is a figure higher than the country’s entire civilian death toll in World War II, and twice the number that were killed in the 1940-41 Blitz bombing campaign.
Responding to the bleak numbers, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and, of course, as prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done.
“What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering.”
‘Mistakes have been made’
But critics say the UK government’s slow and flawed response to the COVID-19 crisis is partly why deaths have mounted.
“Certainly mistakes have been made,” said Veena Raleigh, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the King’s Fund, an independent think-tank focused on healthcare.
“There’s no question. It was a new, unpredictable virus and you must respond with great alacrity. But the response hasn’t always been as fast as it should have been.”
Raleigh points to a number of factors over the course of the pandemic that have led to the UK’s high death toll: government hesitancy to go into lockdown, shortages of PPE gear for health workers, inadequate testing capacity, insufficient travel restrictions and outbreaks in care homes, as well as the new so-called “UK variant” of the virus.
“The UK also went into the pandemic with an under-sourced health system following years of austerity cuts,” said Raleigh. “This meant there were more capacity restraints for the UK than most European countries.”
Some of those shortfalls were evident for Amanda Borrill, whose mother Mary died on January 15, at 88.
Mary caught COVID-19 in the care home she was living in.
“The whole circumstances of it is so difficult,” Borrill told Al Jazeera. “I wasn’t able to see her [in person] for nearly 10 months. At least, I was fortunate that I was able to see my mother in her last moments.
“I held her hand as she was dying. Had she died without me being able to be there, like many people did, that is one hell of a thing to live with for the rest of your life. She was an amazing mother and she held our home together.”
As the nation mourns together, Borrill hopes the UK will change for the better as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s been a war effort,” she said. “Everybody is in the same situation. I hope people become more united. I think some community spirit during the pandemic has been fantastic. But there’s a hell of a lot of heartbreak. It will take me a while to get used to it.”