A little over a year ago, a Cornish gardener’s life was ripped apart when his mother became one of the first in Cornwall to die of a disease that was about to claim millions worldwide.


Debbie Tullett, Laurence Reed and Andrew Tullett at his mother’s memorial in Tresillian PICTURES: PAUL WILLIAMS

19th My 2021

A little over a year ago, a Cornish gardener’s life was ripped apart when his mother became one of the first in Cornwall to die of a disease that was about to claim millions worldwide.

Coronavirus was sweeping across the globe, after an initial outbreak in the little-known Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

Since then, there have been almost four and a half million cases in England alone, of whom 112,000 have died. Global deaths have topped a staggering three million, with funeral pyres and mass burials in countries like India, where the health system has all but crashed under the weight of the disease.

In Cornwall, there have been more than 550 covid-related deaths since the disease first struck, with more than 14,000 contracting the virus. This week, I looked at just one of the Cornish families affected by this pandemic.

Shirley Tullett lived just two doors down from her son Andrew in the pretty riverside village of Tresillian, near Truro. There was nothing particularly unusual about Shirley; she was fairly fit for her age, and had no reason to catch this new virus.

It wasn’t as if she mixed in large groups or spent her life globe-trotting – but catch it she did, and within 17 days of being admitted to the Royal Cornwall Hospital, Shirley lost her fight for life, leaving a trail of devastation for her loving family.

I first heard about the news when Andrew called me live on air and broke down. He told me his mother was in hospital and because of strict covid rules, he wasn’t allowed to see her or hold her hand as she passed away. His only contact was via a phone, whispering he loved her as she gave up her struggle for life.

In all my 30-plus broadcasting years, I’ve never felt so personally affected by any story –in fact, the whole team was in tears during the entire call.

A year on, the 46-year-old self-employed gardener still mourns the loss of his mother, and is using his dreadful experience to encourage others to take the implications of covid
seriously. He recalls the live phone conversation to me was one of the most difficult days of his life: “My mum brought me into this world, and I wanted to see her out of it –and I wasn’t allowed to. If anyone could get me to see my mum at Treliske before she died, it was you, Laurence –but even you let me down!”

He describes the past 12 months as a roller-coaster. Now, you can invite 30 people to a funeral, but for his mum it was just 10, although “she could have quite easily filled a church of 300 – it was very, very hard.”

Andrew says the whole devastating experience has left him numb, and yet, as Cornwall comes out of lockdown, he fears that some people are still refusing to get the covid jab, and is angry about all the misinformation regarding its safety. He urges people to get it done: “It won’t kill you, but if you don’t get it, you could kill others.” Despite all the talk about social distancing soon to be a thing of the past, he’ll be avoiding crowds and busy supermarkets.

He’s also fired a broadside against those who are exempt from wearing masks on medical grounds, saying they should stay home or at least wear a visor. In a strong, Cornish, no-nonsense approach to this disease, he says anyone can download exemption tags from the internet: “Bloody wear a mask and get a jab!”

Despite the road map to full recovery poised to be announced in June by the Prime Minister, Andrew thinks people shouldn’t meet in crowds or busy restaurants, and says night clubs should definitely not be re-opening. He’d also like to see covid passports made mandatory.

Andrew’s wife, Debbie, told me that her husband of 25 years hit rock-bottom when his mum died. “He went to pieces. I’d never seen him that bad, but I’ve had to give him a lesson in tough love, and told him he had to move on as his mum would have wanted.” She says her incredibly hard-working husband never ever shows emotion, even to her: “He’s a man’s man!” she said.

Andrew recalls one of the last things his mother told him: “Life goes on, get back to work.” Former care assistant Debbie (whose own father passed away a few months later), also remembers how, the night before her death, Shirley told her she loved her – something she had never said before. “Perhaps she knew she wouldn’t last the night,” she says.

“Dying from covid is not a normal type of death – you can’t see them, you can’t grieve in the same kind of way. Just imagine talking to a dying woman on the phone – it was horrendous.

Imagine not being there to hold her hand or hug her goodbye.” Shirley’s ashes have since been scattered in her beloved local park, where a memorial bench has been erected in her memory. Andrew says he hopes his story is a stark reminder that we all have a responsibility to do the right thing. “Even if the jab makes you feel unwell for a week, so be it.”

Me, mum and covid: Andrew’s sad story