Government ‘must not politicise Covid memorial plans’

The government must not politicise plans to memorialise the Covid-19 pandemic, the chair of the UK commemoration commission has said, as she urged more people to submit ideas on how to remember the nation’s experience.

Nicky Morgan, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said ministers would be “unwise” to put any political spin on plans when they decide on what form memorials will take.

Amid calls to make permanent the Covid memorial wall opposite parliament that was instigated by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, the UK Commission on Covid Commemoration is due to submit the results of its consultations to government ministers next spring.

The recommendations will land as current and former ministers prepare for cross-examination at the public inquiry module examining central government’s handling of the pandemic, which has pledged to identify any “wrongful decision-making and significant errors of judgment”.

Morgan told the Guardian that the commission had not faced any “pushing one way or the other”, but said: “Any government would be ill served if they did try to politicise the commemoration process, and the remembrance process.”

Already, the national Covid memorial wall in London, which features more than 200,000 red hearts – one for each person who died in the UK with Covid – was proving popular with members of the public who had responded to the consultation, Morgan said.

“I think it is a remarkable tribute … how that is reflected and the part that that wall has to play … is still being debated,” she said. “But I think the fact it’s organic, grassroots upwards, makes it truly remarkable.”

Asked if the wall should be preserved, she said: “It’s been mentioned in pretty much every single engagement that any of us have had.” Other commissioners include the former Condé Nast publisher Sir Nicholas Coleridge, the former Labour health minister Caroline Flint, and Ndidi Okezie, the chief executive of the national charity UK Youth.

The memorial wall was conceived in part as a rebuke to the government’s handling of the pandemic. Matt Fowler, a co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “The government must put politics aside and support us in our efforts to have the wall made a permanent memorial.”

So far, more than 2,000 members of the public have answered a questionnaire on what form pandemic commemoration should take. But with that representing a small proportion of the UK’s population of 67 million, Morgan called for more responses, particularly from men and people from ethnic minorities, who are currently under-represented.

Morgan said it was unlikely that a single memorial would be sufficient. Her commission has been examining other memorials, from the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan to the Bali bombing memorial in Indonesia, as well as Covid memorials already built around the UK. She said there was a consensus emerging about a desire for “spaces, and they like the idea of green memorials”, in part because getting outdoors during lockdowns was a way of coping.

Lord True, the leader of the House of Lords, who established the commission as a Cabinet Office minister, has previously said there was consensus in the upper house about the value of planting trees.

Consultees are showing enthusiasm for an emblem to mark the pandemic – the way red poppies are used to remember military conflicts – with yellow and red hearts already being used to represent all people who died in the pandemic and those who died from Covid respectively. An annual memorial day also appears popular, although there is “no particular consensus emerging” on the date, Morgan said. A suggestion of a memorial coin, as has been struck in Italy, has been less enthusiastically welcomed.

Unlike for the first world war, which led to a programme of local war memorials, there was no national memorial in the UK for people lost to the 1918 Spanish flu, prompting some commentators to wonder if that contributed to the country’s lack of preparedness.

“People are really keen that we should think about how do you learn lessons for the future,” said Morgan. “Now, we’re not the inquiry … But people are saying to us when you’re thinking about your recommendations, thinking about looking to the future is going to be important for us.”

The commission’s terms of reference task it with exploring how to commemorate “loved ones who perished”, “the heroism of those who have saved lives” and “the courage of frontline workers”, as well as “the genius of those who created the vaccines” and “the small acts of kindness and the daily sacrifice of millions who stayed at home”.

It is intended to “shape a broader national conversation and create deep and broad public ownership of recommendations”.

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