More than 100,000 people in the UK have died within 28 days of testing positive for the coronavirus. Here, the loved ones of victims remember their lives and reveal the personal toll that the pandemic has taken on families across the country.
On the streets of West Bowling, Bradford, Kaneez Begum could often be seen zipping about in her electric wheelchair.
The great-grandmother was a well-known and much-loved figure in the area. “She could never just nip out to the shop, because everyone she passed wanted to stop and talk to her,” says son Shadim Hussain.
At her home – shared with her husband, Khadim, as well as Shadim, his wife and their four daughters – there was a constant procession of visitors. Some came for Kaneez’s advice, others just for a chat. All were given a cup of tea and, more often than not, a plate of food.
“It was impossible to live with her and feel bored,” says Shadim. “There was always someone coming along or something going on. She just loved people. She was always making someone laugh.”
Then, in November, that laughter fell silent.
Kaneez – who already suffered from muscular dystrophy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – was diagnosed with Covid-19. She died late at night on Thursday 5 November. In a room at Bradford Royal Infirmary, Shadim was able to share her last minutes.
“We recited a verse of the Qur’an together,” he said. “I told her I loved her. She knew already.”
The mother-of-seven’s life offers a reminder of something that the horrific figures often seem to hide: behind each number is an individual person – unique, remarkable, loved – whose loss has caused suffering to many others.
Kaneez was born in Jhelum, a city in northeast Pakistan, and moved to Bradford in 1971 shortly after marrying Khadim, who had found work in the city’s textiles factories.
Despite being diagnosed with her dystrophy in the mid-1970s, she refused to let the debilitating illness beat her. As her mobility became increasingly limited, her determination to still get out and about only grew stronger. When she could no longer physically practice her two passions – gardening and cooking – she simply had others do them for her while she sat and instructed. “And let me tell you,” says Shadim, a 42-year-old charity chief executive, “it was a brave person who refused.”
Seeing her seven children make a success of themselves – including pursuing careers in London, and Duisburg in Germany – was her great joy. So were her 25 grandchildren. None, despite the number, were ever forgotten at birthdays. The four who lived with her – girls aged between eight and 18 – could often be seen out with her in West Bowling. Often, they would be instructed to hold her purse.
“They were smitten with her,” says Shadim. “But then everyone was. When she passed away, we had so many messages, it was overwhelming. It’s special to know your mum had such a wonderful impact on so many people’s lives.”
Paul Ramsden, 80, Lancashire
Paul Ramsden was 80 years old but still as fit as a fiddle.
He went to the gym every day and cycled several times a week. “He’d set off on his bike first thing in a morning,” says his wife, Jacky. “He’d do 60 miles and still be home for lunch.”
Age had not dimmed the great-grandfather’s lust for adventure. Over the last decade, the couple had travelled everywhere from the Galapagos Islands to Greenland, the Antarctic (twice) and Ecuador. “He was full of life,” says Jacky.
On a Saturday last March, everything changed.
Having arrived back from a holiday in the Canary Islands, he complained of feeling fatigued. He went to bed early and never properly woke up again.
On Sunday morning, unable to be roused, he was rushed to hospital. The next day, he was transferred to intensive care. On the Tuesday, Jacky received a call confirming what the paramedics had suspected: Paul had the novel coronavirus.
“He died on Friday,” she says. “He died alone. I never saw him after the Sunday.”
That morning – 27 March – she received a call from doctors saying he would not make the day. “I couldn’t say goodbye,” she says. “I couldn’t even leave the house. I was in isolation. I can’t remember what I did. None of it seemed real. I imagine I made myself a cup of tea.”
“We still had so much planned,” says Jacky, a 64-year-old retired research manager. “We had never once talked about slowing down. It wasn’t in his nature.”
Paul was born in 1939 in Halifax, and became an engineer after studying at Imperial College London.
He was widowed at the age of 37, when his first wife – and the mother of his two children – suffered a massive brain haemorrhage.
He met Jacky when they both worked at BAE Systems, and the pair married in 1981 before moving to Lytham St Annes, on the Lancashire coast, where they remained for the rest of their life together.
He also worked at Rolls Royce in a career spanning 40 years. He retired in 1999 but was respected enough to continue doing consultancy work for the European Commission.
“He was just a brilliant man and a brilliant person,” says Jacky. “I’m so devastated that he was taken from us before he should have been, but I also feel so lucky to have spent my life with him.”
Elsie Sazuze, 44, Birmingham
On weekdays from 7am until late in the evening, Elsie Sazuze could be found at the Midlands care home where she worked.
Even though the hours were long, the 44-year-old from Birmingham loved her job because looking after people was in her nature, says her husband, Ken Sazuze.
But it was the weekends she truly cherished, when she would spend time with Ken, 45, and their two children Andrew, 22, and Anna, 16.
“She was a family-oriented person, who loved to spend quality time with her family,” says Ken.
The couple, both originally from Malawi, had been together for 24 years when Elsie died from Covid-19.
Not long after England went into its first lockdown in March, the care home worker called her husband to say she was coming home early from her shift because she was not feeling well. That same night, both Elsie and Ken woke up with bad fevers and shivers, and called the hospital – where staff told them they may have Covid-19.
By the following day, Elsie was struggling to breathe. Holding her by an open window, Ken suggested calling an ambulance.
At the hospital, her condition deteriorated and she was taken into intensive care. Ken received the message he was dreading just days later.
“I got the call saying, ‘You need to come. Things have turned worse,’” he says. “When I reached there, things were indescribable. It is when my world just crumbled. The kids, me – our world just changed right there.”
He adds: “I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that.”
Since Elsie died in hospital last April, just a week after falling ill, her family are doing their best to “pull through”, Ken says, but it is not easy.
“You never know how you’re going to wake up in the morning, or how you are going to end up sleeping at night,” he says.
Andrew is working hard on his future – even securing an internship with the help of the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation charity – and his father is proud of him, just as he is of his daughter.
“I’m proud of my little girl fighting through it all,” he adds. “I can see her emotionally getting stronger.”
He says: “While Elsie is in heaven, she’s doing a phenomenal job looking after us.”
Ian Burman was known for his sense of humour.
“He was a really, really funny guy,” says his stepson Oliver Frost. “He was always trying to make people around him happy and smile.”
The 57-year-old met Oliver’s mother, Jacqui Burman, in the summer of 2014. By October, they were engaged. In December of that year, the couple from Sussex were married.
“They just knew straight away,” says Oliver, 22.
After spending six happy years together, their time was cruelly cut short when Ian died after contracting the coronavirus at the start of this month.
Oliver says he would like Ian to be remembered – as well as for making people laugh – for the happiness he gave his mum, a 57-year-old frontline NHS worker in a Covid respiratory ward.
“My mum waited 50 years before meeting someone she felt was really right for her,” her son says.
“As much as they deserved more time together … if I could say one more thing to him, it would be thank you for the time he gave her.”
As Ian’s death shows – along with the thousands of others reported since the start of 2021 – the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and continues to leave families in grief.
Oliver, a career consultant, says one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is how quickly it all happened.
On 10 December, his mother and Ian were out for a meal for his stepdad’s birthday, and were “absolutely fine”.
Then, just before Christmas, Ian fell ill and was taken to hospital.
Days earlier, he had started a new job as a delivery driver, after his shop selling printing and technological products in Burgess Hill fell victim, like many other businesses, to the difficulties of the pandemic.
Ian died in early January, two weeks after he was admitted to hospital. Oliver says he had an underlying illness – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – that had never been diagnosed.
“That process for my mum, going from seeing him completely healthy and then, less than a month later, just not there any more, I think that is what is so difficult about it,” Oliver says.
Jacqui, who works part-time because of back problems, is now worried about how she is going to live without her husband, her son says.
Her colleagues at Brighton and Sussex University Hospital Trust say she has not asked for any support, but that they want to step in and help her through a fundraiser.
Jacqui has “helped to care for countless people in their time of need”, her friend Laura Elmes says.
Trevor Gardiner, 59, Kent
“He was the love of my life, and I was his,” says Sally Gardiner of her husband, Trevor.
The two met when they worked together in 2018 and quickly fell for each other, becoming engaged after three months of dating, and marrying less than a year later.
The couple shared a love for motorbikes and would embark on spontaneous trips together, just seeing where the road took them. Trevor enjoyed tinkering with his bike and was a clever man who “could do anything he turned his head to”, says Sally, 45. If he didn’t know how to do or fix something, he would take things apart to work it out.
They married in December 2019 and had a James Bond-themed ceremony – the wedding “of my dreams”, says Sally. Trevor selected the soundtrack for the whole wedding, choosing which song Sally walked down the aisle to, the music that played in the background during the ceremony, and what they heard as they walked back out as husband and wife.
Sally says: “Our wedding was in Leeds Castle in Maidstone. It was so glamorous. I was the first person to wear the wedding dress the designer had made of that style, and he told me I looked stunning, like Cinderella.
“The next day we went to Venice on our honeymoon and it was the best holiday I’ve ever had. I remember when we left, I was sobbing my heart out. I suppose maybe I knew this was going to be the last time we would have something like this trip together. It was strange, really – I’ve never cried before coming home from a holiday before.”
Before the first coronavirus lockdown was imposed, both Sally and Trevor became ill with the disease. Sally recovered, but Trevor’s condition deteriorated. He was taken to hospital, and within eight days, Sally had to say goodbye to him over video call.
Trevor died on 14 April, aged 59.
“It was the worst time of my life,” his wife says. “I didn’t even get the chance to kiss him goodbye when the ambulance came to take him to hospital; I couldn’t really see him properly on the video call, and I couldn’t be there, hold his hand or anything.”
But Sally is thankful for the time she did have together with Trevor, no matter how short.
“He showed me what love actually was. I have so much to thank him for, and I’ll never have another relationship like this. It was just so easy to love each other and when we had to spend time apart, we hated it.
“When we got together, we agreed to just live each day as though it was our last. He was such a happy man. It was so lovely and we were so in love. I miss everything about him and I miss us. People would search a lifetime and never find that kind of love.”
Andrew Busby, 63, Worcester
Andrew Busby was an industrial chemist and a straightforward man who was never afraid to speak his mind, says his daughter, Ellie.
He had a dry sense of humour and was a logical thinker and strict atheist. A well-respected scientist with a keen interest in philosophy, Andrew was also a cat lover and a dog hater – something that everybody who knew him was aware of.
“Out of me and my younger brother, I’m probably the most similar to him,” says Ellie, 29. “We had a funny relationship, but we got on very well. We liked all the same things – I’m very much into philosophy as well and he showed me all the music I now love.
“On the other hand, we’re both quite stubborn and we did have a lot of arguments. It’s one of those relationships where you’re either best friends or enemies.”
Andrew, originally from Nottinghamshire, had many interests and hated sitting still. He loved photography and 1970s rock music, and was such a perfectionist he renovated Ellie’s whole family home in Kidderminster himself because “he didn’t trust anyone else to do it”.
He also loved books, and was “always, always reading” – until he developed dementia.
“That was one of the biggest losses,” says Ellie. “He couldn’t read any more.”
Andrew was diagnosed with dementia in 2016 and had been suffering from the condition for at least five years, although his family believes it may have been as many as eight.
His personality changed drastically following his diagnosis and the last year before his death in March 2020 was “extremely difficult” for Ellie’s family.
“The run-up to his death was awful, possibly the worst period of my life and worse than his actual death,” she recalls. As the dementia worsened in the summer of 2019, Ellie and her mother found it increasingly difficult to care for him as he became more aggressive. In August, Andrew was sectioned for six months in a ward for people with dementia in Bromsgrove Hospital, and was transferred to a care home by February 2020.
Early last year, a resident of the care home returned from hospital with undetected Covid-19. Soon the virus was passing between everyone there. Andrew contracted the virus and died on 25 March, aged 63, after experiencing problems with his appetite and blood circulation.
“The last day was awful. It was the last time they let people into care homes to say goodbye – in hindsight, that was a bad idea – but I kind of wish we hadn’t gone because it had been a month since we saw him and he had changed so much and couldn’t do anything,” says Ellie.
Andrew’s family hope to mark his life with a day of celebration when coronavirus restrictions are lifted and gatherings are allowed again.
Michael Gottlieb, 73, London
Until the pandemic struck, Michael Gottlieb had enjoyed a busy life in north London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb. He had four grandchildren and was involved in all of their routines and daily dramas – picking them up from wherever they were, dropping them off where they needed to go.
“He was a keen golfer too, and he carried on working at the golf club in his retirement. He was the kind of person who couldn’t sit still,” recalls his daughter Rivka, who says the wounds are still raw after his death from Covid-19 in April during the first wave.
“I miss him all the time. As a Jewish family, we would be expected to sit shiva and go through the rituals of grief together, but we haven’t been able to grieve with all our friends properly. When things do eventually get back to normal, we’re going to be reliving things and thinking, ‘He should be here for this.’”
Michael’s wife, Mili, also contracted the coronavirus and was badly ill in hospital last April.
“At one point we thought we might lose them both,” says Rivka. “She’s OK now, but she has horrible long Covid symptoms and is still going through the trauma and grief of it all.”
Rivka has been campaigning for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic as part of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group.
“We all need to know what went wrong,” she says. “There has been so much dithering and delay at every stage. I’m not saying it’s easy. But we need to know why it’s been so much worse in this country than so many other countries. Because it didn’t need to be this way.”
Tracey Donnelly, 53, Sunderland
Tracey Donnelly was always busy helping other people, right up until she died of Covid-19 in mid-November. The support worker for the North East Autism Society cared for some of Sunderland’s most vulnerable people. The 53-year-old, originally from the east coast of Scotland, was also at the centre of the lives of her four children, three stepchildren and eight grandchildren.
Her husband, George, 58, is still stunned by how suddenly she fell seriously ill. “I keep thinking back to that week before she went into hospital – how she was still organising things, telling me what to do, packing her bags for hospital, asking about other people,” he recalls. “She was still very much herself.”
Although the family was limited to 30 at the funeral, dozens more friends gathered outside. “She was such a special person, and there was so many people who wanted to show how much she meant to them,” says George. “The cortege went past all the residential homes where she worked, and there were flags and pictures of Tracey on display – we were blown away by that.”
George, a warehouse manager, is taking comfort from his family and using work as a distraction. “It’s a matter of keeping busy at work at the moment – but there are moments it hits you,” he says. “If I’m at home, I’m seeing her there, and all the things she would be doing. Even now, I can’t get my head around it.
“Thankfully, the family all supports each other and we do a lot of checking in with each other. We keep each other going.”
Barclay Mason, 56, Harlow
When he arrived in the UK from his native New Zealand in 1999, Barclay Mason had no family or friends waiting to greet him. Then in his early twenties, he arrived at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow with one ambition: to work as a nurse and climb his way up the ranks in the NHS.
He would leave the hospital for the last time 20 years later, surrounded by colleagues, friends and former patients who formed a guard of honour around his hearse to mark a life of compassion and sacrifice for those around him.
Former colleague Sarah Lewis was there for his first day at the hospital – becoming friends right from the start. “He walked in and we were like ‘Who is this beautiful stranger?’” she says. “He was shy and quite a private person at first, but as soon as he got his foot in the door he started to relax and he was loyal to the trust for 21 years.”
Like many NHS workers, he was quick to throw himself into the front line of the virus response when the coronavirus first broke out – working in the respiratory emergency department, or Red area, of the hospital’s A&E. “He never ever questioned that,” Sarah says. “He would always prioritise himself over other persons to go in the Red area because he was a mature nurse and he wanted to protect other people around him.”
He managed to get through the first wave of the virus without infection, but in December he tested positive. After being treated in his own hospital, he rebounded, leaving for home where staff would call and check up on him. Four days later, he stopped answering the phone.
“On the Saturday morning, a couple of the girls – one is an A&E nurse and one is a paramedic – went round to his house and unfortunately they found him dead at home,” Sarah says. A coroner later ruled that he had suffered a pulmonary embolism brought on by the virus.
Sarah says: “His back door was open, his bed had been made, he had some washing in the machine, there was a chicken in the slow cooker – so he must have just had a sudden collapse and that was it.”
Barclay’s Maori heritage was important to him, and friends and colleagues raised enough money to send his body back to New Zealand for a traditional burial. While attendance at his funeral was restricted, his guard of honour was attended by scores of those who had felt their lives touched by him, and featured a traditional haka to see him off.
“He was just the most kind and calming person,” Sarah says. “He never had a bad word to say about anybody even if he was faced with the kind of difficult patients you can get at the A&E. He always defused the situation. He always conducted himself with grace and dignity and he was so, so kind.”