NEWS
25/07/2020 07:46 BST | Updated 25/07/2020 07:46 BST

'She Wasn't Just A Number' – Families Of These Covid Victims Want You To Know Who They Were

More than 45,500 people have died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus. Like these three, every one devastated a family. This is who they were.

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Tributes

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In the UK alone, more than 45,500 people have lost their lives to Covid-19

At the height of the coronavirus crisis, the country was reporting the deaths of more than 900 people a day in hospitals. 

But behind each one of these numbers is a person – someone with a family, friends and a life story to be told. 

Three families have shared tributes with HuffPost UK to the loved ones they have lost during the pandemic.

Amrik Singh 

“Fiercely independent” Amrik Singh, 89, was one of the fittest people his grandson Paman knew.

Getting up at 5.30am every day to drive himself to the gym, when he fell ill and tested positive for Covid-19, his family were optimistic about his recovery.

Amrik arrived in the UK from rural Punjab, India, when he was 33.

Paman Singh
Amrik Singh and his grandson Paman 

After working as a builder in Kent, he was offered the chance to open a paper shop in Glasgow’s West End, where he built his new life.  

A dad-of-seven, grandfather of 22 and later a great-grandfather, Amrik returned to his home country every year to help run eye clinics, arranging ophthalmic treatment for those in abject poverty.

He returned from his last trip to the Punjab on March 13, 10 days before the UK government announced its plans for lockdown. 

Concerned about the long journey he had just been on and his potential vulnerability because of his age, Amrik agreed he would live with his daughter in Birmingham for the coming weeks.

Despite “following all the guidance, doing everything he was supposed to”, he fell ill on April 10. Two days later, he was in hospital. And less than a fortnight after that, his grandchildren read him the Sikh version of the last rites as he lay in his hospital bed.

“He was a tremendous charitable man, an excellent athlete, a dedicated server of humanity in general and I don’t know how he fitted it all in,” Paman, an employment lawyer, told HuffPost UK. 

“He also doted on every single family member – and he had a very big family.

Paman Singh
Paman and his grandfather Amrik Singh

“At the eye camps he helped to co-ordinate, he would talk to patients who had never been in a hospital before and were scared. He would change their sheets, help them to the toilet after their operations. 

“He also sponsored a programme to help young girls in India who were abandoned by their families because they were female, paying for their care and education. We had no idea he had even done that, because he didn’t tell anyone. He just wanted to help people.”

One day while running his paper shop, Amrik was racially abused by a customer, who was then immediately involved in a car accident outside. Despite what had happened just minutes earlier, the shopkeeper drove him to the hospital.

“He actually became one of that man’s best friends,” Paman said. 

In hospital, when Amrik’s health began to fail, his granddaughter – a doctor – was allowed to see him for 15 minutes, wearing full personal protective equipment. 

“We were able to do one last video call with everyone in the family,” Paman said. “My sister was with him when he quietly slipped away. 

“The medical staff were amazing – they couldn’t have done any more. On the day he died, at about 3am, I couldn’t sleep. I called the ward and one of the nurses gave me her personal mobile phone number so I could speak to him.  They were so kind.”

Paman said his grandfather was his best friend, and acted more like a big brother even in his later years. 

He now plans to set up a foundation in Glasgow in his memory, helping the most vulnerable. 

“He was so full of fun. We both used to get dressed up in suits and go into expensive car dealerships, just so he could test drive the cars,” he said.

“I am just glad he left us with memories of his brilliance, and that he didn’t lose his independence.

“The last thing he said to me was ‘whatever you do, make sure you don’t stop helping people’.  His last thoughts were of others, which just sums up the man he was.” 

Sheila Taylor 

“If I had to describe my mum in three words, I would say: kind, strong and lovely,” said Denise Hinshelwood.

Her mum Sheila Taylor died on March 23 aged 82 after developing Covid-19. Her family has been told she was one of the first people in Wales to die with the virus. 

But while Sheila’s death was tragic and hard for her family to bear – especially for Leonard, her husband of 63 years – it’s the happy times that her daughter Denise cherishes. 

“She was funny, my mum,” said Denise. “She was also quite fiery – her sisters always used to say: ‘If ever we were in trouble, we would always call for our Sheila, she’d sort it.’”

Denise Hinshelwood
Sheila Taylor

Sheila – whose maiden name was Powell – was born in Cwmbran, Wales, in 1937. She was one of nine children. 

After leaving school, she worked in a variety of jobs – in an office, in a pharmacy and in the town’s biscuit factory. 

But it was at a dance in St Gabriel’s Church that she met her husband Leonard, who she married when she was 21. The couple went on two have two children together.

“When my mum and dad were younger, they were social butterflies,” Denise said. “They loved point-to-point horse racing and going to Ascot.

“In the 60s, my mum’s door was always open – every Christmas morning, everybody would come to her house. 

“They would all start drinking at silly-o’clock in the morning, mind, and we might not have lunch at 1pm – but we would always have lunch eventually.” 

Denise added: “But she could have her moments – we weren’t the Brady Bunch!  

“If Dad said no, you could always say: ‘Please, dad’. Dad was the softie. 

“But if mum said no, it was no, and dare you do any different. If you answered back all those years ago, you would have to run up those stairs a bit quick! She had really strong morals – no meant no, and that was it.” 

But in her old age – which Sheila dedicated to looking after Leonard, who developed Parkinson’s disease – she got a lot softer, Denise said. 

“She wasn’t as fiery. I used to say: ‘You’re mellowing now, mum.’ And she would say: ‘Don’t you be fooled.’” 

At the start of 2020, Sheila became ill, developing cellulitis and then sepsis. 

And when she returned home from hospital, having beaten the infections, that Denise realised her mum still wasn’t well.  

“I came in and my mum was sat on the side of the sofa,” she said. “She just looked so dreadful and she was slumped to one side. I said: ‘Mum, what’s the matter?’ but she was really confused.” 

Denise Hinshelwood
Sheila Taylor and her daughter Denise

Denise assumed that the infections her mum had been fighting in hospital had returned. “At that time, we didn’t hear of Covid here. It was still abroad,” she said. 

“I rang the ambulance and they took her back in. She certainly wasn’t swabbed for anything and Covid was the last thing in our mind – it was in other countries at that point.” 

It was only a few days later that Sheila was tested for coronavirus and Denise was told she would have to wear a mask and gloves when visiting her mum. 

“They rang me the next afternoon and said that my mum had tested positive for Covid. I couldn’t believe it. They told me she had been moved to the Covid ward.” 

The hospital later told Denise all they could do for her mum was to make her more comfortable. 

“I said: ‘Have you got the right person? Are you sure you’re talking about my mum?’ Because I knew what they meant when they said giving her something to make her more comfortable.” 

Denise and her son rushed to the hospital to see her mum. “They wouldn’t let my husband in because they had closed the hospital at that point,” she said. “We went onto this Covid ward – I’ve never seen anything… It was the most awful thing I had ever seen in my life.” 

While Sheila had been told she had the virus, because she had been in and out of hospital, she didn’t understand how severe the situation really was, Denise said. 

“My mum told me to take her stuff home. She said: ‘I’m coming home tomorrow, promise you will come and get me.’” 

When it was time to leave, Denise told Sheila: “‘Bye mum, I love you lots.’ And she said: ‘Love you too, see you in the morning.’”

A couple of days later, Denise received the news her mum had passed away. In the summer, Denise’s father also died, from a non-Covid related illness. 

Denise said she wanted to pay tribute to her mum after coronavirus and social-distancing rules robbed her and her family from having a proper funeral.

With tens of thousands of people having died from Covid-19 in the UK, it can feel like your loved one is just a number, Denise said. 

“Nobody on the news ever said: “Mrs Jones down the road has died,” “Mrs Smith down the lane”. It was like they were just forgotten, like they were a number. 

“That’s how I felt my mother was. The 16th person. No, my mother wasn’t the 16th person – her name was Sheila and she was a mother and a grandmother and a great grandmother and somebody’s wife and somebody’s daughter. She’s not just a number.” 

Jennifer Mortimer 

Emily Webb-Mortimer
Jennifer Mortimer in the 1970s 

The things Emily Webb-Mortimer remembers best about her grandmother – who died in March after contracting Covid-19 – are “fairies, roses and Shakespeare”.  

Jennifer Mortimer – nee Gibson – was born into “pretty humble Cockney beginnings” in the 1930s.  

During her youth in London she met the famous British playwright Harold Pinter, becoming the only permanent female member of his legendary Hackney Gang, Emily said. 

“She would always sing us these old Cockney songs. Her favourite was one that ended every chorus with: ‘I can’t marry you today, my wife won’t let me.’ She would put on her old Cockney accent to do it.” 

After going to Canada as a young woman to become a teacher, Jennifer met her first husband and had a daughter. She came back to London after getting a divorce, becoming a socialite in Soho, Emily said. 

“She met my grandfather, James, in one of the more famous Soho bars, called The French, in 1957 or 1958. My grandfather and his roommate were taking bets as to whether she was actually Ava Gardner.” 

The pair went on to marry and have three children. “My grandmother lived for her family,” Emily said. “My grandfather was a photographer and she would be his assistant – she even modelled for him, as did my dad and his sisters.” The couple separated in the 1980s. 

It was from her grandmother that Emily developed her love of Shakespeare – especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

Emily Webb-Mortimer
Jennifer Mortimer with her granddaughter Emily, as a baby

“When I was eight, she gave me a ‘My First Shakespeare’ book and from then on I was obsessed. She performed a lot of Shakespeare back when she wanted to be an actress and her favourite role was Titania.” 

Titania is the queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

“I grew up in the countryside, so whenever she visited she would take me and my brothers on long country walks and tell us to look in the bushes in case we could see any fairies playing.” 

Jennifer’s flat in Great Portland Street was the “most incredible flat in the world” for her grandchildren. 

“I would marvel at her oppressive collection of books, which covered half the walls in the house, and try on her massive motorcycle helmets,” Emily said.

Walls that didn’t have bookcases were decorated with art and “beautiful photos” of her children. 

“The flat was like her – vibrant, full of life, beautiful and smelling of roses. She always wore rose perfume.” 

It was when Emily was a young girl that her grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. When she was 13, Jennifer went to live in a care home. 

“Towards the end, she couldn’t speak or move, save for her head. But sometimes she was lucid and you knew she was really listening to what you were saying,” Emily – now a 20-year-old student – said.

“I always tried to thank her, to let her know how much she meant to me in those moments.” 

On her 87th birthday, on March 11, Jennifer was rushed into hospital with laboured breathing.  

“We were told she wouldn’t last the night,” Emily said. “But she lasted another week, which didn’t surprise anyone.

“She was one of the strongest people in the whole world.”