Sombre UK marks one year since first virus lockdown

·3-min read
The initial lockdown was meant to last three weeks but Britain is now in its third phase of restrictions

Britain on Tuesday was to mark the anniversary of its first coronavirus lockdown with a minute's silence in tribute to the more than 126,000 people who have died -- one of the world's worst tolls.

The "National Day of Reflection" will see the silence observed in parliament and elsewhere at noon (1200 GMT) followed by church bells ringing to mourn the dead and honour frontline health workers.

At 8:00 pm, members of the public are being encouraged to stand on their doorsteps with lit phones, candles and torches to signify a "beacon of remembrance".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a lockdown on March 23 last year, shutting schools, non-essential shops and services, and banning gatherings of more than two people.

"From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction -- you must stay at home," Johnson said a year ago, announcing the most stringent restrictions on public life since World War II.

Initially, the lockdown was meant to last three weeks. A year on, Britain is in its third phase of restrictions but is gradually loosening them thanks to a mass vaccination campaign.

However, Johnson warned that a third wave was now sweeping across Europe and will inevitably "wash up on our shores", even as he called for reflection on the losses of the past year.

It has "taken a huge toll on us all", he said, calling the anniversary "an opportunity to reflect on the past year -- one of the most difficult in our country's history".

"We should also remember the great spirit shown by our nation over this past year," he said, although Johnson's many critics accuse the government of repeatedly doing too little, too late to combat the pandemic.

The death toll in March last year was 335. A year later it stands at 126,172, among the five worst rates in the world per million people.

The prime minister required life-saving treatment in intensive care after catching the virus shortly after announcing the first lockdown.

- Covid politics -

Prince Charles also had Covid-19 early in the pandemic but was able to recuperate at home on the royal Balmoral estate in northeast Scotland.

"Whatever our faith or philosophy may be, let us take a moment together to remember those who have been lost, to give thanks for their lives, and to acknowledge the inexpressible pain of parting," Charles said in a recorded message for the anniversary.

Health minister Matt Hancock said he would be pausing at noon to reflect on the "hardest year".

"This crisis has touched everybody," he told the BBC.

"The last year has been probably the hardest year in a generation. It's important that we all constantly are striving to learn from what's happening."

However, Johnson's government is resisting calls to hold an immediate public inquiry into why the pandemic struck Britain so hard, and political rows have also clouded the vaccination drive.

Britain's inoculation campaign currently rests largely on UK-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

But supply constraints in India mean the next phase for people aged under 50 will have to be paused next month, the government has warned.

European officials meanwhile are furious that AstraZeneca has up to now been able to deliver its UK contract in full while falling short on its supplies to the EU.

Johnson said Monday he was "reassured" that EU leaders would not follow through on a threat to blockade vaccine exports from the continent.

But the next day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her backing behind the plan.

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