No one knows for sure when Richard “Richie” Mawson contracted coronavirus, but, if his family were to guess, they would say it was related to the Champions League game between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid at Anfield on 11 March.
Richie, 70, a retired train driver from Kirkdale, Liverpool, was in the Sir Kenny Dalglish stand that day, as he was for every Liverpool game. A season ticket holder, Richie had been attending Liverpool matches since he was a teenager. His uncle would take him to watch the Reds, back when Everton were the more successful club, and the Blues fans would give them stick.
He had been at Hillsborough in Sheffield on 15 April 1989, too, when 96 people died as a result of a crush inside the stadium before Liverpool were due to play Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final. Richie and his son, Jamie, now 48, were in the stand directly above the crush. They saw everything. At home, Richie’s wife, Mary, watched, appalled, as the disaster unfolded on TV. She saw ashen-faced men and boys clawing their way over the fence and collapsing on the pitch. Then she saw Jamie and Richie, hauling people up to the safety of their stand, and she knew that they were safe.
When the police came round to interview them afterwards, Jamie says he had never seen his father so angry.
Richie set out from the flat he shared in Kirkdale with Mary, 72, just after 6.30pm on the day of the Atlético match. It was a little earlier than usual, because a friend had given him a spare ticket for the hospitality lounge and he planned to eat before the game – the club usually laid on a carvery.
Richie and Mary would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on 1 August. They met on the No 3 bus. Richie was a bus conductor; Mary worked at the British American Tobacco cigarette factory. “Every time I got on the bus, he would ask me out,” Mary remembers. “I would say: ‘Go away now!’’’ Market stallholders would ride the bus with crates of flowers and Richie would persuade them to give him daffodils or tulips to present to Mary. She relented; they got married in their early 20s. “In them days, that was kind of old,” Mary says.
It was a happy marriage. “I liked everything about him,” she says. “He was just a good person.” Richie became a train driver for Merseyrail and Mary a care worker. Working on the trains, he saw suicides. He once had to climb on to the tracks to turn off the power after a young girl jumped. “He never took time off,” Mary says. “Maggie Thatcher had ruined all the jobs. You were lucky to have one in those days.”
Richie loved family, holidays, Liverpool FC and horse racing – in more or less that order. Most of the time, the family went to Spain. “Every year, he’d be on the phone, harassing me to book the holiday for that year,” says Jamie. “‘Come on!’ he’d say. ‘Have you booked it yet? We’re going to miss out!” When away, in time-honoured tourist fashion, Richie would rise early and bolt for the sun loungers. “He was terrible,” says Jamie. “It was the most embarrassing thing ever. He’d wait there with his towel. My daughter filmed him once, at six in the morning, running to get the sunbeds with all the other tourists. He was out in front.”
If Richie had a weakness, it was his love of betting, although he never spent more than he could afford, putting down only 50p or £1 on a bet. “Nothing went short in this house,” Mary says. “You couldn’t argue about it.” He could also be grumpy. “Me dad was a terrible moaner,” says Jamie, laughing. Richie moaned the most when his horses were losing. “I’ll be honest with you, he was absolutely useless,” says his friend John Gallagher, 69, a business owner. “He couldn’t pick a horse. He was the worst gambler I ever met.”
Richie was cheerful, popular, well turned out. He shined his shoes, even if he was only taking the dog for a walk. He always did the washing-up. He went to the gym twice a week. He was never cruel, although he often made fun of Mary, especially when she was taking too long at the shops and he wanted to go home. He was a good husband. “Richie was sound as a pound,” says John. “He loved life.”
As Richie walked the half an hour or so to Anfield, 3,000 Atlético fans were gulping down the dregs of their pints in the narrow pubs of Mathew Street in the city centre, before assembling five minutes away in Williamson Square. This is the tradition for all the major European games: the away fans assemble in central Liverpool and march together to the stadium, 45 minutes north-east.
It was a blustery evening and the away fans had to shout to be heard over the wind, which clawed at their Atlético scarves. Richie walked through the singing fans as they marched, arm in arm. Most of the Atlético supporters peeled off towards the Anfield Road end of the stadium; Richie made for the Sir Kenny Dalglish stand, named after the Liverpool legend who would later test positive for coronavirus himself. Richie climbed up the stairs towards the hospitality lounge, as the rest of the 52,000 fans piled in.
As Richie ate his carvery, Maria Eagle, the MP for Garston and Halewood, which includes parts of south-east Liverpool, was on the floor of the House of Commons. Addressing Matt Hancock, the health secretary, Eagle said: “Can I press the right honourable gentleman on the issue of the 3,000 or so Atlético Madrid fans who have travelled to Liverpool and are, at the moment, in a crowd of 54,000 at Anfield [the official attendance was later reported as 52,267]? Schools and colleges are closed in Madrid and public gatherings of over 1,000 people are banned.”
It had been an exhausting day for Hancock. He had attended a cabinet meeting, then a meeting of the emergency committee Cobra, which he chaired, and finally he had addressed the house on the coronavirus. It was past 7pm when Eagle asked her question.
Earlier that day, the World Health Organization had declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. Nadine Dorries, a health minister, had tested positive for the virus the day before. Dr David Halpern, a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), had used the phrase “herd immunity” in public for the first time. That morning, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had announced a £30bn fiscal stimulus package in his first budget to mitigate the damage caused by Covid-19. Within weeks, £30bn would look like small change, with Sunak making available £330bn in government support and pledging to do “whatever it takes” to keep Britain solvent.
“Is it really sensible for fans who could not watch their team at home to be able to travel to Liverpool and watch their team play with 51,000 locals?” Eagle finished by asking. Hancock stepped up to the dispatch box. “We will always follow the scientific advice on what makes the biggest impact,” he said. “It is interesting, listening to the scientists, that sometimes the things that we, as lay people, may feel intuitively will have the biggest impact do not, in fact, have the biggest impact … There are some things that feel right, but do not have an impact at all.”
The government insisted that it was “following the science”. Mass events in England would not be shut down, because the scientists and Public Health England did not deem it necessary. When ministers said “the science”, what they meant was Sage, but what they really meant was the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), a Sage sub-group that had been data-modelling the pandemic and which counted among its members Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.
Five days after the game at Anfield, Ferguson would perform a handbrake turn after new data revealed that Britain was en route to as many as half a million deaths. But as Richie stood in the stand, the SPI-M modellers were still saying that mass events could go ahead. The reasoning was that the risk of Covid-19 transmission in the open air was low. Sage’s behavioural science sub-group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviours, also made the point that holding a major football game behind closed doors would just mean that fans congregated in confined spaces such as pubs or friends’ houses.
Not everyone agreed with what the government called “the science”, however. On the morning of the match, Prof John Ashton landed at Heathrow from Bahrain, where he had been advising the Bahraini government on its Covid-19 response. Ashton, a Liverpudlian, is semiretired: a former director of public health for the north-west, he has also held positions at the University of Liverpool and the University of Southampton.
Most people know Ashton in Liverpool for Hillsborough. He was there that day in 1989, only a few feet away from Richie and Jamie. A doctor by training, Ashton established an emergency triage on the pitch. “I was a spectator who finished up the afternoon certifying people dead at a football match,” he says.
When he arrived in London from Bahrain, Ashton picked up the newspapers and was aghast to learn that the UK government was refusing to ban mass events. Ashton is a Liverpool season ticket holder, but he did not go to the game that night. He wanted to set an example.
On the day of the match, Madrid had become the centre of the pandemic, with 782 of the confirmed 1,646 Covid-19 cases in Spain located in the city. Spain had already endured 35 deaths. The number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in the previous two weeks and the WHO had warned that things would get much worse. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” said the WHO’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
On the same night that Liverpool played Atlético, Paris Saint-Germain hosted Borussia Dortmund behind closed doors, at the request of the French authorities. The week after the Liverpool game, Ashton said the British government’s decision to allow the game at Anfield to go ahead was the result of “clinical and policy negligence”.
“These modellers from London must have a very strange idea about what the social experience of going to a big football match is,” Ashton says now. “They must think you just go to a football match and then you go home.” In reality, “visiting supporters would be in Liverpool for at least 24 hours. They’d be out and about, drinking, mixing with local people, in the hotel, at the ground. They’d go to the souvenir shop at Anfield. The contact time is not just two hours of people sitting in rows behind each other. It’s much more than that.”
An analysis of NHS data by the consultancy Edge Health suggests that the Liverpool-Atlético game may have led to an extra 41 Covid-19 deaths in Liverpool – nearly half the death toll at Hillsborough. On the day of the match, Liverpool had six confirmed Covid-19 cases. By 2 April, this figure had risen to 262. By 3 May, 303 people had died of Covid-19 in Liverpool – one of the highest death tolls in the UK outside of London. By 15 May, Liverpool had the highest Covid-19 death rate outside the capital.
It is unlikely that Richie contracted Covid-19 at the match; he did not become ill for two weeks. But those who did get it left the stadium and spread it onwards, to their partners and flatmates, who passed the virus on again to the classrooms, gyms, nail bars and supermarkets of Liverpool. “There will have been concentric circles of infection outwards, like throwing stones on a pond,” says Ashton.
Ashton was not the only person to express concerns before the match went ahead. “It was clear to us at the outset that there was no leadership or public prevention measures being taken by the government,” says Joe Blott, from Liverpool’s supporters union Spirit of Shankly. At a meeting with council officials and club representatives the Monday before the game, Spirit of Shankly raised concerns about the match going ahead. “We spoke to officials at the club and they said they were following the government guidance,” he says. Blott attended the game that night. The pubs around Anfield were packed.
At 8pm on 11 March, the Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, and his team walked out of the tunnel on to the pitch. A few fans reached out to shake Klopp’s hand; with a look of extreme irritation, he upbraided them and batted them away. The crowd roared. The game commenced. It would be the last major football match played in England for a long time.
The Barlow Arms is a short walk from Anfield, up Sleepers Hill and along the perimeter of Stanley Park, famous in the city as the dividing line between the grounds of Liverpool and Everton. Only no one calls the pub that. It is known as the Dark House, on account of the large shadow that falls across the pub’s exterior as the sun sets. It is a working-class pub whose regulars are a mixture of Everton and Liverpool fans. For the bigger games – only the finals, really – the publicans, Sandra and Tony McCormack, 67 and 70, deck the bar in the colours of whichever team is playing.
As he walked to the Dark House after the game, Richie called Jamie, who had been watching at home. It was a routine of theirs: they always debriefed after a match. Liverpool played well, they agreed, but Atlético put up a stunning defence to win 3-2 and dump Liverpool out of the competition. Richie was optimistic about their Premier League prospects, though. “He said: ‘I think we’re going to win the league,’” Jamie remembers.
Inside the Dark House, the bar manager, Elaine McCormack, 47, was waiting for the football crowd to pile in. Richie was a regular; Elaine had known him since she was 14 and started helping her mum and dad behind the bar. When Elaine’s daughter Connie, 20, served him, he would tip her a pound coin as she handed him his Carling and say: “Here you are, my little mate.”
Richie always came into the Dark House on Sunday afternoons, after he had finished running his granddaughter, Nicole, 16, around town. Richie adored Nicole and talked about her constantly. After he dropped her off, he would sit and watch the horse racing with John, occasionally running out of the pub to place wagers at the betting shop around the corner. Sometimes, if it was quiet, Elaine would come over to their table, which would be covered in betting slips. “I’d say: ‘No one winning on this table?’” Elaine recalls. “He’d say: ‘Not today. I backed the favourite!”
Elaine saw Richie come in that evening after the game, although she can’t remember if she served him. She may have swerved him: Richie was always a pain to serve, because he held the kitty for his friends and placed huge orders, often eight or nine pints at a time. He always tried to skip the queue, too – the perks of being a regular. He always got away with it, too, because everyone knew Richie at the Dark House and everyone liked him. “He was always polite, Richie,” says Sandra. “He’d never walk past you without saying hello. Never ever. He’d always let on to you, no matter what.”
While Richie drank his Carling, Ashton appeared on Newsnight. “I’m tearing my hair out really with this … you’ve got 3,000 supporters in town, staying overnight in Liverpool, drinking in the bars, and a proportion of those will be corona-positive. We will now have people being infected tonight in Liverpool because of that.”
At 11pm, last orders, Elaine called out to Richie as he was leaving. “I said: ‘Ta-ra, I’ll see you Sunday,’” Elaine remembers. Richie nodded.
The day after Liverpool’s Champions League exit, Scotland and Ireland announced that they would ban mass events. The day after that, almost all British football was postponed.
On 12 March, the day after the game, Mary took the bus into town. She overheard a Wetherspoon’s employee telling her friend about work last night. “She said: ‘I can’t believe what this government has done! They let 3,000 Spanish supporters into this city … There’s going to be a pandemic here, mark my words,’” Mary remembers.
Sitting behind them, Mary thought: “My Richie was at the match.” She told herself that it could not be as bad as the girl was letting on. “But them words were the truest words I ever heard in my life,” Mary says.
When Richie got ill, his decline was rapid. On 26 March, he began to complain of a cold. Mary called the GP, who asked Richie to cough down the line. The GP said it was not coronavirus. The following day, Mary changed the bedsheets and found that they were wringing wet with sweat. On 1 April, Mary called the GP again. She prescribed Richie antibiotics, which a neighbour dropped off. He took the tablets and went to bed in the spare room. “Just after 2am, I hear this heavy breathing, like a ghost wailing,” says Mary. “I fall out of bed and run in.” Richie was stricken, gasping for air. She called an ambulance. The paramedics tell Mary that they are taking Richie to hospital.
“I really thought in my mind that they would send him home,” says Mary. She gave Richie £10, for a cab fare, in case he was discharged before Jamie could collect him. The paramedics wanted to wheel Richie to the ambulance, but he refused. He walked down the stairs, a paramedic holding an oxygen canister behind him, and stepped into the ambulance. Mary watched from the window as the ambulance pulled away in the dark, then sat down on the sofa and wept. She did not know that this would be the last time she would see her husband of 49 years.
We do not know for certain when Richie contracted Covid-19. What we do know is that, on the night of the match at Anfield, Covid-19 was silently replicating across the UK. It was finding its way into care homes, hospitals and schools. Giving evidence to parliament on 10 June, Ferguson said that infection rates were doubling every three to four days in mid-March. “Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by a half,” he said.
After Richie became infected with Covid-19, the virus burrowed into the cells of his upper respiratory tract and replicated. His immune system was not able to fight off the virus and went into overdrive. His lungs began to fill with water, which is why Richie could not breathe when he spoke to Jamie on the afternoon of 3 April. “He was saying: ‘I can’t get my breath,’” Jamie remembers. “I said: ‘Dad, leave it, we’ll phone you back.’”
When Jamie called back the following day, Richie was on a ventilator. He would remain on the ventilator for more than two weeks.
As Richie lay in hospital and the scale of the loss of life was becoming clear, the finger-pointing began. On 2 April, Matthew Ashton, the incoming public health director for Liverpool, told the Guardian that “it was not the right decision to stage the match”. On 19 April, the mayor of Madrid admitted that it was a “mistake” to allow Atlético fans into the UK. On 20 April, a reporter from the Liverpool Echo, which had been investigating the city’s escalating death toll, asked at a Downing Street press conference whether the government should have cancelled the game. “That is certainly an interesting hypothesis you raise,” responded Prof Dame Angela McLean, the UK government’s deputy chief scientific adviser.
On 14 April, Jamie received a call from the staff at Aintree hospital. Richie was not improving and the hospital wanted to take him off the ventilator. Jamie pleaded with the doctors for more time and they agreed to give Richie two more days. On 16 April, they called back. It was time for the family to say their goodbyes. A nurse video-called Mary, Jamie, his wife Christine and Nicole, who were assembled at Jamie’s and Christine’s house.
Nurses tried to sit Richie upright, but he was unconscious, with tubes coming from his mouth and nose. His mouth was agape and his face bloated. The call lasted only 10 minutes, because “everyone was screaming and crying”, says Mary. “To say goodbye over a video link – I have never gone through an emotion like that,” says Jamie. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Words cannot describe it. How can you say goodbye over a video link?”
After the call, the family begged the hospital staff not to leave Richie alone. A nurse promised to hold his hand through the night. Richie died at about 3am.
Richie’s funeral was held on 2 May. It was beautiful, even if the lockdown restrictions meant that only 10 people could attend. As the hearse pulled out from Richie’s home in Kirkdale, his neighbours applauded him down the street. On the way to the crematorium, the hearse waited outside Anfield for two minutes.
As they were approaching the crematorium, Mary turned to Jamie and said: “There’s a lot of people at that bus stop.” When they got closer, they realised that the socially distanced crowd of 200 people was there for Richie. The funeral director turned on the speakers, so that the crowd outside could hear. When the coffin disappeared behind the curtain, strewn in roses – red, of course – they played You’ll Never Walk Alone. Outside, everyone sang along with their hands in the air, even the Everton fans.
Leaving the crematorium, the mourners were silent. Jamie suggested they clap the well-wishers, so they started clapping them. They clapped back and then everyone was clapping. “It was lovely,” says Mary. Richie’s ashes now sit in a wooden casket with a Liverpool crest on it at Jamie’s house. When Mary dies, she will be cremated and their ashes will be buried together.
In the weeks after Richie’s death, Jamie and Mary grew angrier. By this point, the fault lines in the government’s handling of the pandemic were so big that you could see them from space. “The government acted too slow on everything,” says Mary. “And now they’re telling lies. They’re patting themselves on the back about how well they’ve handled things. They must think people are foolish enough to believe them.” At a Downing Street press conference on 30 April, Boris Johnson defended his decision not to lock down the UK sooner. “We did the right thing at the right time,” he insisted.
A team from Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool is assessing whether Liverpool’s death toll is linked to the game, at the behest of Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool. Liverpool FC have indicated that they will cooperate with this investigation. Increased local death tolls have been linked to Wolves’ game against Espanyol on 20 February, the Manchester derby on 8 March and Cheltenham festival between 10 and 13 March.
Almost everyone in Liverpool, it seems, knows someone who has died. “People were saying: ‘I don’t know anyone who’s got it,’” says Mary. “And then, all of a sudden, everyone had got it and everyone was dying.” At the beginning of May, the death rate in Liverpool among those hospitalised with Covid-19 was nearly double the national average. As of 9 August, 1,248 people have died of Covid-19 in Merseyside hospitals.
“If you go back to Hillsborough, when you have a cockup, it’s not normally one thing going wrong, but a number of things going wrong and they all come together,” says Ashton. As with Hillsborough, the decision to let the Atlético game go ahead was a baton relay of missteps, each mistake passed off to the next hand, but all converging at the same time. “You had the epidemic in Spain, you had inactivity at a national level, you had the financial pressures for the game to go ahead and the passion for the game in the city,” Ashton says.
“What is the job of a minister for culture?” Ashton asks. “Shouldn’t they be providing oversight? What about Uefa? The club itself could have been more proactive.” Uefa, the administrative body for European football, which organised the Liverpool-Atlético game, distanced itself from the decision to go ahead with the game in a statement to the Liverpool Echo. “Any decision taken by Uefa which led to matches being postponed or played behind closed doors was taken in close collaboration with, and based on decisions made by, the relevant national authorities in the respective host countries,” it said. “Uefa did not receive any advice or request from local authorities to play this match behind closed doors.”
Already, there are indications that the government is blaming the scientists. Appearing on Sky News in June, the health minister Helen Whately said: “We follow the scientific guidance as to what is the right thing to do.” Sky’s presenter, Kay Burley, responded: “You can’t stick this on the scientists.” “Well, I can,” Whately said.
Across Liverpool, there are calls for an investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic. “There needs to be an inquiry into whether lockdown came soon enough to prevent these large scale gatherings,” says Liverpool’s metro mayor, Steve Rotheram. “We’ve been hard hit.” Jamie and Mary back the calls, too. “I’m not just doing this for my dad, but for all the people who lost their lives because of the game,” says Jamie. “That’s why we’re pushing for an inquiry. And we’ll get one.”
This month, MPs on the home affairs select committee published a damning report that said failure to impose special border measures, such as mandatory self-isolation and targeted testing, on people arriving in the UK from countries such as Spain in the run-up to the Covid-19 lockdown was “a serious mistake” that significantly increased the pace and scale of the epidemic. “The UK was almost unique in having no border checks or quarantine arrangements at that time,” said Yvette Cooper, the committee chair. Despite numerous requests for the scientific evidence that backed the decision-making at the time, the committee said none was provided.
As with Hillsborough, the pandemic has scarred the city. “Scousers have long memories,” says Ashton. “It will be in there.” It may be years before the city recovers. “Liverpool is a community,” says Mary. “We’ve all got a sense of humour. It’s a city of laughter. But I don’t think there will be much laughter after this. It took the city years to come to terms with Hillsborough. And now this.”
On 25 June, after 30 years of disappointment, Liverpool won the Premier League. Thousands of fans gathered at Anfield to celebrate, in contravention of social distancing guidelines.
At Jamie’s house, the family watched as Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat to Chelsea crowned Liverpool the champions of England. It was what Richie had been waiting for for decades, but he was not around to see it. “It broke my heart, Liverpool winning,” says Mary. “He’d have been jumping through the ceiling. He’d have been singing all The Fields of Anfield Road, with his terrible voice.” They wept. “To think that he couldn’t see that happen with his own two eyes after 30 years,” says Jamie. “That was hard to take.”
And then they dried their eyes and raised a glass to Richie. “We talked about the lovely memories,” says Mary. “The way he was. How loved he was. And how loved we were from him.”