United Kingdom

COVID-19: UK’s largest temporary morgue set to open with high deaths to continue ‘for some weeks’

The UK’s largest temporary morgue is preparing to open to cope with rising coronavirus deaths, while another set up in a former aircraft hangar during the first wave of the pandemic is now in use for the first time.

The facility at the former RAF Coltishall base, northeast of Norwich, was unneeded when it was set up last year, but Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital is now using it to take pressure off its own mortuary.

It comes as the UK’s largest temporary facility – for up to 1,300 bodies – prepares to open fully in London next week in response to the capital’s growing coronavirus death toll.

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A former aircraft hangar at RAF Coltishall in Norfolk has been turned into a mortuary. File pic

The morgues are the latest in a number of temporary facilities set up across the country, including one at the former military hospital Headley Court in Leatherhead, Surrey.

Tom McCabe, chairman of Norfolk’s COVID-19 Strategic Co-ordination Group, said the hospital has plans in place “to use a number” of the mortuary spaces, including the former RAF site, also known as Scottow Enterprise Park.

Mr McCabe added: “We can reassure people that we have a dedicated, trained team of staff who care for those who have died and been taken there.”

Almost 85,000 people in the UK have died after testing positive for coronavirus, government data shows. It’s the fifth-highest death rate in the world, according to John Hopkins University.

While there are signs that new infections may be slowing, the government’s leading scientist Sir Patrick Vallance has warned that high death numbers will “carry on for some weeks”.

This is because of the lag between infection, displaying symptoms, hospitalisation and death. Well over 40,000 new cases are still being reported every day.

nside one of the storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, London which will provide an additional 20% in capacity for public mortuaries in London, helping to relieve pressure on hospitals and council-run morgues.
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The Ruislip will provide an additional 20% in capacity

Westminster City Council chief executive Stuart Love, who is leading the pan-London virus response, said the large newly-built facility in Ruislip, northwest London, was a “sobering reminder” of the pandemic.

“From my point of view, we have built this really hoping it doesn’t get used to its capacity,” he said, adding: “We want to give people hope, but we are not there yet.”

More than 10,500 people have died with the virus in London since the start of the outbreak.

The city’s mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident last week as hospitals came under increasing pressure.

It took just over a week to construct the facility on the site near Breakspear Crematorium.

It can currently hold 217 bodies, but will reach a capacity of 1,300 once building works are completed next week, to provide an additional 20% in capacity. The site is expected to receive bodies from Friday.

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Children’s ward filled by COVID-19 patients

During the first wave of the pandemic, four temporary mortuaries were built in London to provide extra capacity.

Mr Love said those sites were decommissioned and a decision was made to open one hub at Ruislip, making the process of storing bodies more streamlined.

The entire Ruislip site, made up of tented facilities with refrigeration units, has cost £3.2m, with the total expected to reach £4m by March, Mr Love added.

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“As the number of deaths have increased, particularly since Christmas Eve, we made the decision to build temporary capacity with the overriding principle of ensuring the dignity and respect for the bereaved and the deceased are maintained,” he said.

“It’s really important that people have confidence that bodies are being treated with respect.”

He said he hopes the mortuary doesn’t reach capacity, but added: “This just re-emphasises the message of staying at home and looking after your loved ones.”

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