By Tony Earnshaw, Local Democracy Reporter
The extent and impact of the coronavirus pandemic could be so dramatic that local authorities like Kirklees may not be able to cope with the sheer number of casualties.
That’s the warning by academics at the University of Huddersfield, who say the rapid spread of Covid-19 could lead to a potentially unmanageable spike in mortality rates.
The grim domino effect could mean staff absences and a delay in issuing death certificates leading to a bottleneck in burials and cremations and mortuaries filled with the dead.
And in the most extreme and controversial scenario, councils may have to consider interring bodies in mass graves.
Their research shows that even if fatality rates are at the lower end of expectations – 1% of virus victims – it is highly likely that death and bereavement services will be overwhelmed
In conducting their research Dr Julia Meaton, Dr Anna Williams and researcher Helen-Marie Kruger examined the role of coroners and analysed the continuity plans drawn up by local authorities in the event of a pandemic, finding a number of flaws.
They found that both registration and bereavement services know the death toll will increase during a pandemic but are unsure of the actual figures to plan for.
They say that the extraordinary circumstances around the pandemic means it cannot be
“business as usual” when dealing with an alarmingly high death rate.
In their newly published paper they describe the scale of personal tragedy and loss as “unquantifiable.”
Their paper focuses on how authorities such as Kirklees will manage excess deaths.
They write that:
The death toll will increase.
Burial and cremation services could be beyond capacity four or five weeks into the outbreak.
Limited cemetery and body storage space will also be a major problem, with mass graves a possibility, although they admit that making such a decision would be highly controversial and would upset and anger many communities.
The trio’s findings were based on research carried out in 2019 and include scrutinising previous pandemics and analysing the readiness of a local authority in England – anonymised in the article – in order to appraise the scale of the challenge.
However they have updated and adapted their facts and figures so that conclusions and recommendations are of immediate relevance.
Commenting they said: Under-estimating the mortality rate could reduce the effectiveness of business continuity plans, whereas knowing what to expect will focus attention on the resources required.
“An option would be to have an escalating business continuity plan, where the service prepares for a worst-case scenario, which can then be scaled back depending on the anticipated mortality rate.”
Their recommendations include the possibility of ring-fencing employees so that during periods of severe staff shortfalls their availability will be guaranteed.
Technological innovations could include an online death registration service that would speed up the process, although with insufficient safeguards it could be open to misuse.
Dr Meaton is Reader in Sustainability in the Huddersfield Business School. Dr Williams is Principal Enterprise Fellow in Forensic Anthropology and an experienced forensic anthropologist in the School of Applied Sciences.
Helen-Marie Kruger researched the potential impact of a pandemic while studying for a Master’s in Risk, Disaster and Environmental Management.
Their article is titled Pandemic Continuity Planning; will coronavirus test local authority business plans? and is published by the online journal Emergency Management Review.