Wollaston emergency body storage unit ready for reactivation - and it's not if, but when

Winter pressures on hospital mortuary places can be relieved using the facility

By Alison Bagley
Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 10:23 am

A space where bodies are temporarily stored to help Northamptonshire's hospital mortuaries and funeral homes' capacity is likely to be reopened this winter to cope with the predicted rise in excess deaths.

Plans to reactivate 'The Leys' temporary storage facility in Wollaston have been set out in letters to residents to warn them of potential increased traffic near the Doddington Road site.

The shared facility, owned and managed by both West and North Northamptonshire Councils, has already been used to support both Northampton and Kettering General Hospitals with mortuary capacity during the height of the Covid pandemic.

The Leys will be activated when there is a backlog

Sadie Nightingale, head of coroners and West and North Northamptonshire registration service and excess deaths county lead, has been liaising with the county hospital trusts and funeral directors.

She said: "Christmas is always difficult in any coronial area. There are bank holidays and two extra days during Christmas and new year. Families aren't keen to have funerals during that period. Funeral directors have the capacity but it's family choice. There's a build up and things aren't going through as quickly.

"Once the funeral directors are full they can't go to the mortuary and there's a backlog, that's what The Leys is there for."

Currently Northampton General Hospital mortuary has space for 146 bodies and Kettering General Hospital has room for 103 after additional racking was installed to increase capacity.

Security is tight at the facility

As part of the county's 'death management activation plan' The Leys temporary body store will increase the county's capacity by nearly 200 - 184 refrigerated spaces and 12 frozen.

The Leys originally opened in 2020 on land owned by the former Northamptonshire County Council that housed a former tip - the site has been activated twice in the past for two eight-week periods.

Initially activated from April 2020 to the end of May that year, the facility looked after 317 bodies. In the second active period from December to February it cared for 417 including some from neighbouring Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes.

And they are expecting to reactivate again in the winter months.

Ms Nightingale said: "With Omicron it's difficult to say how it will take off. The government is pushing the booster but we genuinely don't know what is going to happen. With excess deaths you have to work on the worst case scenario.

"The death rate is naturally high over the Christmas period. There will be extra pressures because of flu. In addition to Covid there's those who had treatment delayed due to Covid. The NHS has done a great job."

With 24-hour security measures, The Leys has two large cold rooms complete with mortuary-level racking, an office and covered reception area for discreet transport of patients to and from the Wollaston site.

Initially equipment was on loan from central government but now the facility is owned by Northamptonshire's councils.

Ms Nightingale said: "The Leys is in a good location between the two hospitals and it's reasonable for funeral directors. We have this facility now. We are quite lucky to have it.

"We are very strict in our procedures. We make sure that they treated with dignity as we would want our loved ones to be treated. We're there to support and look after people.

"The residents of Wollaston have been amazing. During the clap for carers they organised a clap for the staff at The Leys and we got thank you cards. There was so much support for us it was overwhelming."

In a letter to Wollaston residents Rob Bridge, chief executive of North Northamptonshire Council, told residents that The Leys facility would reopen over the winter but the date was not yet decided.

He wrote: "While not currently required, as with last year's winter period, we will once again open The Leys to support the two county hospitals. It is likely that this will be stood up during the winter months.

"Winter is a time when respiratory illnesses increase and this year, as last, we have the added burden of Covid-19. Reopening The Leys when needed will enable us to manage capacity across all three sites and care for the deceased within our county with compassion and respect.

"When the site reopens, it may result in an increase in traffic as vehicles come in and out of the site. We will continue to do all we can to manage and mitigate any concerns and we thank you for your patience and continued understanding."

Mr Bridge thanked the residents for the way in which they responded to the site opening previously.

He added: "The support and kindness shown by residents of Wollaston will have bought a lot of comfort to those who lost loved ones. I hope that this kindness is extended once again."