Coronavirus UK: Overflow morgue for 1,300 bodies is built at Britain's third-biggest crematorium

An overflow mortuary costing £4million has now been set up at Britain’s third biggest crematorium to provide an extra 20 per cent capacity for bodies in London, following the country’s worst day for coronavirus deaths. 

The storage units in large temporary structures at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, can hold up to 1,300 bodies in total, with the site intended to help relieve pressure on hospitals and council-run morgues.

Westminster Council said the newly-built facility, which was constructed in just over a week, acted as a ‘sobering reminder’ of how the pandemic is affecting thousands of lives as he urged people to follow Covid-19 rules.

More than 10,500 people have died from coronavirus in London since the start of the outbreak and the city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident last week as hospitals came under increasing pressure.

It follows emergency morgues being set up at RAF Coltishall in Norwich; Headley Court in Leatherhead, Surrey; Waterside Industrial Park in Leeds, Salisbury Hospital in Wiltshire and Aylesford Temporary Place of Rest in Kent.

The National Association of Funeral Directors said mortuaries across the UK were becoming ‘very tight on space’, adding that members had been ‘extremely busy’ as pressure on the industry ramped up in the last week.  

Inside one of the storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, pictured today

Inside one of the storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, pictured today

The overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium will provide an extra 20 per cent capacity for public mortuaries in London

The overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium will provide an extra 20 per cent capacity for public mortuaries in London

The mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium can currently hold 217 bodies, but will reach a capacity of 1,300 once building works are completed around January 20. 

Westminster City Council chief executive Stuart Love, who is leading the pan-London response, said today that local authorities worked with faith communities to ensure all religious requirements, wishes and needs were met.

Where have temporary morgues been set up? 

  • Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London
  • RAF Coltishall in Norwich, Norfolk
  • Headley Court in Leatherhead, Surrey
  • Waterside Industrial Park in Leeds
  • Salisbury Hospital in Wiltshire
  • Aylesford Temporary Place of Rest in Kent

When asked whether he thought the temporary mortuary could reach full capacity in the current wave of the pandemic, Mr Love said: ‘We really hope it doesn’t come to that. 

‘From my point of view, we have built this really hoping it doesn’t get used to its capacity. This really is a visual, sobering reminder that we are still in the midst of a severe pandemic. 

‘We want to give people hope but we are not there yet. This just re-emphasises the message of staying at home and looking after your loved ones.’

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 in north-west London instead, making the process of storing bodies more streamlined.

‘We learnt from the first wave how additional capacity was or was not being used and that informed our decision-making this time round,’ he said.

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

‘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 diseased are maintained.

Storage units at Breakspear Crematorium which aims to help relieve pressure on hospitals and council-run morgues

Storage units at Breakspear Crematorium which aims to help relieve pressure on hospitals and council-run morgues

One of the structures covering storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, pictured today

One of the structures covering storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, pictured today

‘It’s really important that people have confidence that bodies are being treated with respect. As mortuary capacity needs increase so do the risks around various elements of the system in storing the diseased.’

Since the pandemic began, 10,820 deaths have been registered in London where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

The figures, from the Office for National Statistics, show that 492 deaths involving Covid-19 were registered in the capital in the seven days to January 1 – the highest weekly number since the seven days to May 1.

In Norfolk, a temporary mortuary set up in a former aircraft hangar at the old RAF Coltishall is now being used by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, having not been required during the first wave of the pandemic.

Tom McCabe, chairman of Norfolk’s Covid-19 Strategic Co-ordination Group, said: ‘It was always anticipated that during challenging periods there would be extra pressures on mortuaries, undertakers and crematoria.

‘This temporary mortuary provides additional capacity to help make sure the county’s hospitals have enough flexibility of space in their own mortuaries, and to ensure we can provide the most respectful and dignified way to look after both those who have died, and their families, over this difficult period.’

The former air base site is now known as Scottow Enterprise Park. ‘Anyone whose loved one is moved to the Scottow location will be informed and we can reassure people that we have a dedicated, trained team of staff who care for those who have died and been taken there,’ said Mr McCabe.

‘The temporary mortuary also received a blessing from the Bishop of Norwich back in April last year, with him making a prayer of dedication in a special address from his home.

Storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, are pictured this morning

Storage units at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, are pictured this morning

One of storage units at the site at Breakspear Crematorium which will provide extra capacity for public mortuaries

One of storage units at the site at Breakspear Crematorium which will provide extra capacity for public mortuaries

‘One of the county’s hospitals, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, has now had to put their business continuity plans in place to use a number of these mortuary spaces.’

The hospital is using the temporary mortuary due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on top of usual winter pressures, and while it puts new equipment in place.

Dr Richard Goodwin, NNUH chief of division for clinical support services, said: ‘Our priority is to always ensure that the deceased are treated with respect and dignity, and therefore we work with our partners to ensure every year we can use additional mortuary space, if needed.’ 

Meanwhile bodies are being stored at a temporary facility in Surrey after the county’s hospital mortuaries reached capacity amid rising Covid-19 case rates.

Some 170 bodies are being kept in the temporary mortuary at the former military hospital Headley Court in Leatherhead, which first opened in April to alleviate pressure during the first wave of the pandemic.

More than half of those kept at the facility died with coronavirus, a Surrey Local Resilience Forum spokesman said.

The county’s hospital mortuaries have the capacity to store 600 bodies but are currently full, while the temporary facility has room for 800.

The Surrey Local Resilience Forum spokesman said the county would be left in ‘real difficulty’ if the 1,400 capacity is exceeded in the coming weeks.

Security staff at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, are pictured in the rain today

Security staff at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London, are pictured in the rain today

A sign signalling the temperature of -15C to -20C in the mortuary area at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London

A sign signalling the temperature of -15C to -20C in the mortuary area at Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip, West London

He said: ‘To put some perspective on this, during the first wave, they had 700 bodies go through that (temporary) facility. The first wave lasted approximately 12 weeks from mid-March to mid-May.

‘Since December 21, after just two-and-a-half weeks, they have had 300 bodies go through it.’

Meanwhile Leeds City Council said 50 Covid victims have been stored at a £800,000 temporary facility in Waterside Industrial Park for the time since it was built.

And Wiltshire Council said Salisbury District Hospital and Great Western Hospital had reached the capacity for 171 bodies and were having to use temporary morgues set up in March.

Around £11million was set aside in April by Kent County Council to prepare three emergency morgues that could store up to 3,000 bodies as part of the authority’s worst-case scenario planning

One of them was the 10,000-sq-ft Aylesford morgue which has room for 825 bodies and will reportedly operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

A virtual council meeting was yesterday told that an ‘urgent requirement’ for more space was made on December 30 due to the pressure on mortuary services across the county.

Within 48 hours the Aylesford site was operational and the first body arrived on January 1.

At the meeting, Councillor Rob Bird said: ‘We are looking at a dire situation in Kent as more local mortuaries are full. The temporary morgue in Aylesford is having to take bodies in at an unprecedented rate.’ 

Signs on the walls of a storage unit at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in West London, pictured today

Signs on the walls of a storage unit at the overflow mortuary at Breakspear Crematorium in West London, pictured today

The entrance to the overflow mortuary at Britain's third biggest crematorium, Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip

The entrance to the overflow mortuary at Britain’s third biggest crematorium, Breakspear Crematorium in Ruislip

The leader of Kent County Council, Roger Gough, said: ‘KCC has the statutory responsibility to lead the county’s coronavirus response and sadly we have not been alone in needing to make preparations for increased mortuary demand as a result of the COVID pandemic.

‘Like every other authority across the country, we have had to plan to ensure sufficient mortuary capacity is available should it be required and we can confirm that Aylesford Temporary Place of Rest is now in use.

‘We know this is a difficult time for all our communities and throughout all our planning our priority has been to ensure that there is dignity and respect for those who have lost their lives and consideration for the bereaved.’

National Association of Funeral Directors spokesman Deborah Smith said undertakers were ‘very, very busy’ as they came under increased pressure due to the pandemic

She added: ‘It’s a busy time of year for the funeral sector anyway, but this year only more so. It’s a very, very busy time, as I’m sure you can imagine from the news.

‘The pressures this year are also very different from normal with staff shielding, dealing with childcare responsibilities, or having to self-isolate. And the problem is we don’t know exactly it will stop building’

Ms Smith also told Agence France-Presse that discussions about the need for the further use of temporary morgues was ongoing across the whole of the UK.

She said three pressures – the spike in Covid cases, the normally higher rates of mortality in the winter months generally and the likelihood of illnesses amongst funeral staff – could all potentially limit the industry’s capacity to deal with the deaths. 

That would have a further knock-on effect on mortuaries she added. ‘The numbers are higher, the sense of unknown is greater,’ Ms Smith explained. ‘We don’t know for how long the numbers will keep building, before they fall away again.’

Siraj Qazi is the manager of Ghousia Funeral Service, a mortuary serving the Muslim community in and around the town of Luton. He said in the last month, the number of deaths in the community had started to increase. Over two weeks, he said there had been a ‘massive influx’.

‘We are doing funerals daily and the deaths that we are dealing with now are predominantly back to Covid,’ Mr Qazi said.

Levels were similar to those seen during the March and April peak of the first wave last year when his firm was almost overwhelmed. ‘I think we’re going have to keep an eye on things and see how it goes in the next two weeks or so,’ he added.

It comes as Boris Johnson last night admitted there is a ‘very substantial’ risk the NHS will run out of intensive care beds as the country suffered its deadliest day of the pandemic so far.

The Prime Minister said despite signs the national lockdown in England is starting to slow the spread of the virus there are concerns hospitals will not be able to cope.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, last night warned the ‘period of high death numbers’ is ‘going to carry on for some weeks’.

‘It’s not going to come down quickly even if the measures that are in place now start to reduce the infection numbers. So we’re in for a pretty grim period, I’m afraid,’ he told ITV’s Peston programme.

Amid fears about a new variant of the virus identified in Brazil, Mr Johnson also acknowledged schools may not reopen after the February half-term as planned.

The stark warnings came as the daily reported death toll reached a new high, with 1,564 fatalities recorded within 28 days of a positive test.

The latest figures mean the grim milestone of more than 100,000 deaths involving coronavirus has now been passed in the UK, although that is not the official UK death toll. 

Mr Johnson said yesterday the national lockdown in England was ‘starting to show signs of some effect’ in some parts of the country as hospital admissions in London and the southeast fell for the first time since before Christmas.

But he warned the country was in the ‘toughest of times’ with the NHS facing a ‘colossal strain’ and the possibility of intensive care units (ICUs) being overwhelmed.

Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Johnson said there were 32,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital, which he said was about 70 per cent higher than during the first peak in April.

He told MPs: ‘If you ask me when do we think that the ICU capacity is likely to be overtopped, I can’t give you a prediction for that.

‘But all I can say is that the risk is very substantial and we have to keep the pressure off the NHS and the only way to do that is to follow the current lockdown.’

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said there have now been more deaths in the second wave than the first.

The 1,564 deaths recorded yesterday was the biggest figure in a single day since the pandemic began, although because of a lag in reporting the deaths will not have all occurred on the same date.

The latest figures bring the total number of deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test to 84,767.

When all deaths where coronavirus is mentioned on the death certificate are counted, plus deaths known to have occurred more recently, the number of deaths involving Covid in the UK is 101,160.