On 20th May 2020 – a sunny, late spring lockdown afternoon – the leader of our country, Boris Johnson, attended a party at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister's principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, invited more than 100 Downing Street employees to join them in the garden, to "make the most of the lovely weather".
On that same day I waved to my fiancé, Ben, from Sydney Street in South Kensington, as he stood by the window in his hospital gown on the sixth floor of the Royal Brompton Hospital. He’d just had major surgery to remove some of the cancerous tumours in his left lung.
We were obeying the coronavirus rules – the strict 'stay at home guidance', only meeting one person from another household outside at a two-metre distance, not seeing friends and family, even in their gardens – along with tens of millions of others. The same rules that we now know were broken by the government and its staff, not just once but several times over the months that followed.
As I write this, the memories of the final eight months of my fiancé’s life begin to resurface. I can feel anxiety tightening its grip like a boa constrictor around my neck, the trauma of what we went through sending somatic tremors through my body.
I didn’t know it back then but 26th March 2020 – just three days after the first national lockdown was announced and one day after Ben's 36th birthday – marked the beginning of the end. We’d hired a car to drive to Stanmore Hospital that day for what we believed would be a routine check-up. But instead of receiving another all-clear, Ben’s oncologist uttered the words I’d prayed I’d never hear. His soft tissue sarcoma was back and this time it had metastasised to his lungs. It was stage 4 – nothing could be done to cure it.
In that split second, my entire world went black. Suddenly, Ben went from a thriving cancer survivor who’d just bought his first home, who was making leaps and bounds in his career as a music agent, and who was planning his wedding in Ibiza, to an incredibly high risk, terminal cancer patient facing possible imminent death.
Over the next eight months Ben’s safety became our utmost priority and as his primary caregiver I went into isolation with him. We locked ourselves away in our flat in north London, sanitising every parcel that passed through the letterbox and every single supermarket item that entered our home because, back then, we didn’t know that COVID-19 is airborne. During the weeks after restrictions were lifted in June 2020, we would make the rare exception to see close friends and family in our local park or from our doorway from a safe distance.
Ben spent over 30 days in hospital that summer, all of which he was forced to spend on his own. I lost count of the number of scans, result appointments, chemotherapy treatments and emergency hospitalisations he had to endure alone. Even though I’d isolated with him and therefore didn’t pose a risk, I wasn’t allowed in. We continued to obey the rules to protect others, to 'do the right thing'.
The look of fear in his eyes every time we were separated at the countless A&Es we ended up at in the early hours of the morning, or at the entrance of the Macmillan Cancer Centre in Warren Street where he received treatment will forever remain burned into the recesses of my mind.
I should have been there when he was in A&E or in the cancer centre – to advocate for him, to console his tears, to fetch him food and to rub his feet.
I should have been there when he was fighting for his life on a ventilator in the intensive care unit (ICU) with severe COVID-19 – to talk to him, to hold his hand, to clean his body, to play him his favourite music.
I should have been by his side when he died of multiple organ failure on 14th November 2020 due to complications from Coronavirus and his cancer, just after the country went back into a national lockdown.
I should have been able to touch him with my bare hands for the very last time, before his physical presence was gone forever. Not through gloves, goggles, a mask, a hairnet, a hazmat suit and plastic sheets.
The months after his passing were even more agonising. The procedures and rituals surrounding death, which grant the deceased person and their loved ones a small amount of dignity, weren’t allowed because of the restrictions that were in place. We weren’t permitted to gather and hug and support one another as a grieving community. Instead I spent another four months alone with my mum and stepdad, who were also considered vulnerable because of their ages.
These are the sacrifices that I made – that millions of us made – and willingly, to ensure we were following the rules, obeying the law and protecting others. We lost out on so much time and so many precious moments with our loved ones that we will never get back.
Today, I am a 31-year-old widow. The 12 months from March 2020 to March 2021 were the most excruciatingly painful, traumatic and inhumane of my life. I will always wonder whether the outcome could have been different for Ben if it weren’t for the pandemic and its impact on cancer services. There are countless other patients, families and loved ones who have a similar and devastating story to tell. My heart breaks for each and every one of them.
Meanwhile the leaders of our country enjoyed the lovely weather, chinking their drinks in the sunshine on the terrace at No. 10. They got together for some festive cheer, for quizzes, drinks and nibbles, and sniggered at us like naughty schoolchildren when they were questioned in the House of Commons.
The flagrant disregard for the rules that they imposed has rightly sparked national outrage.
Will they get away with it? Most likely, yes. It’ll be yet another thing that Boris brushes off, while those of us who have loved and lost are left with no choice but to carry our pain and grief for the rest of our lives.