The date of June 14 is always a hard day for the community around Grenfell Tower, but this year is “particularly intense”, a campaigner has said.
On the third anniversary of the fire that killed 72 people, Covid-19 means the bereaved community are unable to support each other in ways they usually would.
“We haven’t been meeting on the regular monthly walk, and we’ve all been stuck in our own homes,” Justice 4 Grenfell’s Yvette Williams told the Evening Standard. “It’s given the community a very strange feel.”
It is a community – she explained – that has been tight-knit since before tragedy struck.
“We do everything together, and we’ve always been like that as a community, it’s a beautiful place to be. This is the community that invites a million strangers to dance in its street for two days of the year,” she said, referring to Notting Hill Carnival.
“That’s why it is so painful to us that those 72 are no longer with us.”
But it’s not just the sense of community that Covid-19 has affected – the Grenfell Inquiry was suspended until further notice in March. The delay has aggravated longstanding grievances over what many perceive as the inquiry’s stagnant progress.
“It’s too little and it’s too long,” said Ms Williams. “Three years on, we can feel those 72 looking down on us and we don’t know what they’re thinking. We’ve made noise, we’ve been silent, and yet so little has changed.”
Despite the lockdown, administrative work is still underway for the Grenfell Inquiry, and moves are being made to recommence hearings online.
The local council did not “want to distract from the community’s messaging over the anniversary” by putting someone forward for interview. But council leader Elizabeth Campbell said in a statement: “Finally, although now delayed by many months, the inquiry is set to return, and this is a welcome step towards truth, and to justice.”
Nevertheless, some fear virtual hearings will compromise the process.
“One of the only things the inquiry has given us – which it will no longer provide online – is the ability to look those people in the eye and feel their discomfort,” said Ms Williams. “That gives some solace at the end of each day.”
What has the Grenfell Inquiry achieved?
The Grenfell Inquiry was ordered by former Prime Minister Theresa May the day after the horrific fire, with a promise it would “leave no stone unturned”. Divided into two phases, it would look respectively at events on the night of the fire, and longer-term causes in the period preceding.
Phase One, conducted between June and December 2018, published its results last October. It found “significant systemic failings” on the part of the London Fire Brigade, which maintained a “Stay Put” order, keeping residents in their apartments long after they should have been evacuated.
Andy Roe, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said the service is undergoing a “transformation plan,” so Londoners in high-rise buildings can feel safe in their care once again.
In an interview with Sky News, Mr Roe described innovations such as ladders that reach further up high-rise buildings, and smokers that allow them to “bring members of the public safely down through smoke-filled lobbies”. These have reportedly saved 30 lives so far.
On the other hand, Phase One found the Fire Brigade had been caught off-guard by the fire’s rapid spread. This – it concluded – was caused by an aluminium-composite cladding that coated the building’s exterior.
Three years on from the incident, tens of thousands of people remain in buildings with the very same cladding (at a safe estimate). A government deadline for its replacement expired this month, despite over a billion pounds having been set aside by consecutive governments to assist the process.
Justice may still be on the horizon. Phase Two of the inquiry, once resumed, will investigate those implicated by the cladding scandal. For the manufacturers – Arconic – and the company that oversaw Grenfell’s refurbishment – Rydon – this could mean criminal proceedings.
“I think they will always feel an injustice if there are not prosecutions as a result of this,” said Ms Williams of the community. “You know, 72 people died.”
But corporate witnesses have been guaranteed immunity from oral evidence they provide, to encourage them to come forward with information. While it does not guarantee full immunity, this decision has proven contentious.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “Firefighters gave evidence openly and in good faith to the inquiry and will be appalled that this undertaking has been provided. It seems there is one rule for them and another for those doing the bidding of the profiteers who turned Grenfell into a death trap.”
Beyond this, there are issues the inquiry does not touch on. Before it began, the inquiry’s chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, said he did not want to look at “questions of a social, economic and political nature,” regretting it would take too long.
This overruled requests from the community, supported by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for issues of national policy be examined, such as austerity, privatisation, and social and racial inequality.
As Black Lives Matter campaigners march worldwide, Ms Williams – who co-founded Operation Black Vote 21 years ago – sees the incident at Grenfell to be closely connected.
“It’s about social inequality and institutional indifference towards working-class and BAME communities. Let’s not forget: Grenfell himself was a colonialist.”
The Ministry of Housing did not respond to a request for comment.