LONDON - Looking through family photographs at his home in Leeds, England, Gordon Bonner, 86, said he was lost in a "hinterland of despair and desolation." It's been nine months since Muriel, his wife of 63 years, died from COVID-19. He was called to her bedside for the final moments.
"I sat for the next hour and watched Muriel drown in her own body fluids," Bonner said. "It was the most harrowing experience of my life. And it will haunt me, and I'll tell you why. Such was her fight for oxygen that she was sucking at the air, and I can still see her face now and her lips formed a perfect circle as if she was sucking through a straw."
The retired army major was not allowed inside the chapel at nearby Rawdon Crematorium for Muriel's final committal.
"We had to stand in the car park, and I had to watch as six strangers came out, unloaded the coffin, took her into the crematorium chapel," he said. "And the last I saw of her was the tail end of her coffin as the doors closed."
Bonner's haunting account is one among a horrifying number of stories of loss and grief shared by families across the country.
Britain became the first European country Tuesday to report 100,000 coronavirus deaths over the course of the pandemic. A quarter of those have occurred in just the past three weeks as a mutant, more infectious strain of the virus has ripped across the nation.
It means that Britain now has the highest coronavirus death rate per capita in the world, an unenviable position for a country whose state-funded National Health Service is a source of global pride. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told lawmakers Wednesday that he shared the nation's grief.
"I mourn every death in this pandemic, and we share the grief of all those who have been bereaved," Johnson said during the weekly prime minister's questions. "I and the government take full responsibility for all the actions I have taken, we've taken during this pandemic to fight this disease and, yes, Mr. Speaker, there will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened, reflect on them and prepare."
He rejected opposition calls for a judicial public inquiry to begin immediately. "I don't think that moment is now when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant, when 37,000 people are struggling with COVID in our hospitals," said Johnson. "And I think what the country wants is for us to come together as a parliament and as politicians and to work to keep the virus under control, Mr. Speaker, as we are, and to continue to roll out the fastest vaccination program in Europe."
Johnson announced an extension of school closures in England until at least March 8, alongside the enforced quarantine of travelers arriving from high-risk countries, who will be required to pay for their own accommodation in allocated hotels.
Critics say Johnson has done too little, too late. "The prime minister was slow into the first lockdown last March," opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told members of parliament Wednesday. "He was slow in getting protective equipment to the front line, slow to protect our care homes, slow on testing and tracing, slow into the second lockdown in the autumn, slow to change the Christmas mixing rules, slow again into this third lockdown."
Failure to prepare
Professor Lawrence Young, an expert on infectious diseases at Britain's University of Warwick, said years of underinvestment in the National Health Service was partly to blame.
"We suffered from not having an adequate public health infrastructure in this country; we didn't get test, trace and isolate right, and that's still a big challenge for this country, so keeping a lid on infections by effective testing and tracing and then encouraging people to isolate is really important. And we didn't get border control right," Young told VOA.
While Britain leads Europe in coronavirus deaths, it is way ahead in its vaccination program. Close to 7 million people have received their first vaccine doses, far more than any other European state. "It should mean that come March time, we're in a much stronger position in terms of being able to review the current lockdown restrictions," Young said.
However, there are growing concerns about a vaccine shortage. Pharmaceutical firms AstraZeneca and Pfizer warned the European Union this week of delays as production systems are scaled up to meet demand. The EU has threatened to block exports of vaccines produced in Europe and has demanded transparency from the drug companies over their production and delivery schedules.
AstraZeneca said Wednesday that the delay in supplying vaccines to the EU was a result of the bloc's placing its order for 300 million doses in August, three months after Britain had invested in the vaccine.
Meanwhile, the British government's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned the public to be prepared for further bad news. "Unfortunately, we are going to see quite a lot more deaths over the next few weeks before the effects of the vaccines begin to be felt," Whitty told reporters Tuesday.