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Temporary London mortuary for 1,300 bodies ‘sobering reminder’ of coronavirus impact

Security staff 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. Pic by Jonathan Brady

By Taz Ali, PA

A new temporary mortuary that can hold up to 1,300 bodies has been built in London as the capital faces a growing Covid-19 death toll.

A council leader described how the newly-built facility in north-west London acts 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 Covid-19 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.

The facility in Ruislip is the latest of a number of temporary mortuaries set up across the country, including at the former military hospital Headley Court in Leatherhead, Surrey, and at a former aircraft hangar at RAF Coltishall, north-east of Norwich.

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

It can currently hold 217 bodies, but will reach a capacity of 1,300 once building works are completed around January 20.

It will provide an additional 20% in capacity for public mortuaries in London, helping to relieve pressure on hospitals and council-run morgues.

The site is expected to receive bodies from Friday, with transport to the facility arranged by local authority mortuary teams and funeral directors to take the deceased to burial locations.

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.

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

When asked whether he thought the temporary mortuary could reach full capacity in the current wave of the pandemic, he 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 £3.2 million, with the total expected to reach £4 million 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.

“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.”

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