LONDON — Paula Smith couldn’t hold back her tears as she faced a sea of hand-painted red hearts covering a wall along the River Thames, each unique, each representing someone who died of Covid-19 in Britain.
With the tears welling in her eyes, Ms. Smith got back to work painting dozens more hearts on the memorial wall as passers-by stopped to watch. One heart was larger than the others, and on it she wrote in black letters: “Frank Stevens 1941–2020” — a tribute to her 78-year-old father, who died last April.
“Look at how many people we’ve lost,” said Ms. Smith, 49, who was wearing a vest that read The National Covid Memorial Wall, as she took a step back to look at her work, sobbing behind her protective mask. “We keep talking about numbers, but each heart is a person.”
As European countries crossed the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus deaths and lockdown restrictions in recent weeks, memorials have sprung up across the continent to pay tribute to those lost to Covid-19.
The initiative that stretches along the southern bank of the Thames in London may be one of the most significant efforts to date.
Bereaved families have filled a 6.5-foot-high wall with thousands of hearts that they say will eventually contain around 150,000, each for a person with Covid-19 marked on a death certificate in Britain. The country has so far recorded just over 149,000 such deaths, the largest toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world.
The group behind the initiative, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said it hoped to put personal stories at the heart of the national narrative on the pandemic.
“As a country we need to engage with what has happened, with the scale of the loss,” said Jo Goodman, a co-founder of the group, which includes 3,000 people who have lost a relative to Covid-19.
Dozens of bereaved families have painted hearts, but volunteers can also dedicate from a few minutes to a few hours of their day to help fill the wall.
Between two laundries and before picking her son at the nursery, Jasmina Lijesevic took an hour on Wednesday morning to do her part after hearing about the initiative on Twitter. Ms. Lijesevic said she hadn’t lost a loved one to Covid-19, but living 10 minutes away from the promenade where the wall sits, she said she wanted to help those who couldn’t come.
“So many personal stories, and so many lives shattered,” Ms. Lijesevic said as she scanned the multitude of red hearts.
The memorial is expected to eventually stretch from Westminster Bridge, opposite Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, to Lambeth Bridge, about 550 yards away. On one side it faces Parliament, where some lawmakers have called for a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and on the other, St. Thomas’ Hospital, where Mr. Johnson was hospitalized with Covid-19 last year.
On Thursday, organizers said they had filled a fifth of the wall. They hope to complete the memorial by next week, but it has already captured the attention of many in the city. Runners and walkers stop to take pictures of it. Families with toddlers slow down to pay respect. Hospital workers on their lunch break exchange a few words with the volunteers.
The experience has been a personal one for the bereaved families, many of whom say they haven’t had a space to mourn their loved ones.
“It’s therapeutic,” said 20-year-old Courteney Rumball, who lost her grandmother to Covid-19 last year. “You don’t really get a chance to grieve with others.”
Ms. Rumball said she was planning to come every day this week, and on Wednesday focused on filling some hearts with the names of people who died of Covid-19.
Ms. Goodman, the group’s co-founder, said she wanted the memorial to become a place of gathering for bereaved families. The first anniversary of the death of her father, Stuart Goodman, is Friday, and this week she met for the first time the other co-founder of the group, Matt Fowler, who also lost his father last year. “We have been so isolated in our grief, that I feel like I have been grieving in a suspended reality,” Ms. Goodman said.
Bereaved families have called for increased bereavement support services and for a public inquiry into the government’s response.
Avril Maddrell, a professor of geography at the University of Reading in England, said the National Covid Memorial Wall filled a void left by the absence of public memorials.
“It makes a visual statement that 150,000 lives lost to Covid merit a public inquiry, and that this enormous loss of life can’t be swept under the carpet of a successful vaccination program,” said Ms. Maddrell, who has studied how people have paid tribute to those lost to Covid-19.
Mr. Johnson has promised a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, and opposition politicians have called for it to start as soon as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted in coming weeks. But Mr. Johnson has refused to set a date.
At the memorial, several volunteers expressed anger at the government’s response to the pandemic. Ms. Rumball, who lost her grandmother, said she had felt ignored by Mr. Johnson’s government. Her mother painted hearts next to her in silence.
Ms. Smith said too many mistakes had been made, and that she had felt let down by the National Health Service, whose workers have often been lauded by many in the public and the media as heroes. “No one was a hero to my dad,” she said.
Britain is slowly emerging from a monthslong lockdown and Mr. Johnson has promised a “great summer” ahead. Outdoor sports resumed this week, and as groups of six are now allowed to gather outside, crowds have flocked to parks in London to bask in the sun.
Numbers of new infections and deaths have plummeted in recent weeks, raising hopes that some return to normalcy would come soon. With more than 30.5 million people having received a first dose of the vaccine — 45 percent of the country’s population — Britain has rolled out one of the fastest vaccination campaigns in the world.
Yet health authorities have warned that the third wave of coronavirus infections that has swept through continental Europe may also reach Britain.
And bereaved families said returning to normal would be impossible.
“For those of us who lost someone during the first wave, last spring, we’re reliving everything now,” said Ms. Goodman. “Last night I couldn’t sleep because exactly a year ago I learned that my father had Covid, and he died days later, so looking forward to going back to normal is so difficult for us.”
With the pandemic still raging, the hand-painted hearts opposite Parliament may continue spreading for weeks, even if at a slower pace. Still, Mr. Fowler said he hoped this would stop soon.
“When this is done, please, no more hearts,” he said.