Veterans urge public to stick to Covid rules as lockdown anniversary arrives

Tom Pilgrim, PA

Second World War veterans who have endured months of isolation are urging people to keep following coronavirus rules and get a vaccine as the UK reaches the anniversary of its first lockdown.

Being classified as particularly vulnerable due to their advanced age, surviving servicemen from the 1939-1945 conflict have seen their lives restricted more than most during the pandemic.

Major Ted Hunt turned 100 on March 23 last year, the very date that the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The veteran, who commanded landing craft on to Gold Beach in Normandy in June 1944, said he had been “quite content” over the past 12 months and had “plenty to do at home”.

Having received his own first dose, Major Hunt urged people to get their Covid jabs, saying any hesitancy was “the same as deciding not to look both ways before you cross the road”.

Armistice Day 2020
Major Ted Hunt commanded landing craft on to Gold Beach in Normandy in June 1944 (Dick Goodwin/Taxi Charity for Military Veterans/PA)

Speaking to the PA news agency from his home in Lancing, West Sussex, he sent out a message to the public for the remaining months of restrictions ahead.

“All it needs is a little discipline, have your vaccination because it’s insane not to do it,” he said, telling people “not to gather together because you owe it to the NHS staff who are going to be overworked because of your decision to go with a crowd”.

He said: “I’d like to be 102 and if it requires some discipline on my part – OK.”

Mr Hunt, a former Queen’s Bargemaster who saw out the war working on the engineering of water crossings in the Netherlands, said he was looked after by a carer living next door and was in regular contact with his family.

“I’m not one of those poor old boys who’ve been forgotten. I’ve got it made,” he said.

His 100th birthday plans, which included taking his family down the Thames on a boat, had to be cancelled, and he is among the many elderly veterans who have been unable to mark key anniversaries, such as 75 years since the first VE Day, and make traditional remembrance trips to Europe over the past year.

Review of the Year 2020
Second World War veterans have experienced isolation during the past 12 months (Peter Byrne/PA)

The Taxi Charity for Military Veterans is among the organisations that has had to negotiate Covid restrictions while trying to support vulnerable ex-servicemen.

Vice president Dick Goodwin said a year of restrictions has had a “serious effect” on veterans and “put a lot of them into a much deeper isolation”.

While many have coped with the support of families, Mr Goodwin said that with some “you just can tell when you’re talking to them on the phone, they’re talking to you but with some of them there’s very little life in their voice”.

“We know some people three floors up in a block of flats, just looking at the four walls,” he added.

“They’re not going out, most of them are in the vulnerable group. They’ve obviously been vaccinated now… you can see that the loneliness must get to them.”

Mr Goodwin said that, when rules have allowed, veterans have been “meeting at their comrades’ funerals” to give them a guard of honour, saluting the hearse as it arrives.

“There’s so many people… they deserve so much more at their funeral. It’s criminal in a way just to sort of say ‘well that’s it you can only have 10 people there’ or whatever,” he said.

Mr Goodwin said the charity helps between 60 to 80 Second World War veterans as well as others who served after the conflict.

He has been maintaining a list to keep track of the charity’s veterans who have passed away, which currently features some 29 names.

Taxi drivers have been helping veterans where they can, keeping in touch, doing shopping on their behalf and taking them to vaccine appointments.

Mr Goodwin said the high profile of fundraising hero Captain Sir Tom Moore had helped ensure people “are still aware that the veterans are still around and they’re still with us” and that “there might be people alone who need a bit of help and a bit of company and a phone call”.

But overall he said: “You don’t hear any word of complaint from the old boys at all”, adding: “It’s that generation, they just get on with it.”

Harry Rawlins, 95, said he could not get out much before lockdown started and had been “confined to the house for quite a long time”.

Mr Rawlins signed up aged 17 in 1943 and served with the Rifle Brigade and the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, with the war taking him to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Living alone in Edgware, north London, he hailed the “wonderful” support he has received from Taxi Charity chairman Ian Parsons and his “wonder woman” wife Anne, who helped him mark Christmas and his birthday.

He said “most people have responded very well” to lockdown, adding that “mistakes” have been made but that the Government had handled the pandemic “very well so far”.

“When people are downtrodden by anything they tend to help each other out and become more familiar with each other,” he said.

Asked for his message to the public for the potential final few months of restrictions, he simply said: “Follow the rules”.