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Autopsies in Kent may take place digitally as Covid deaths hit more than 100,000

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Autopsies determining a person's cause of death could take place digitally in Kent as the UK coronavirus death toll exceeds 100,000 people.

Kent County Council (KCC), who run the local coroners service, seeks to invest £3 million into the creation of a 600sqm digital autopsy facility in Aylesford.

A temporary morgue has already been built in Aylesford, just off Beddow Way. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A temporary morgue has already been built in Aylesford, just off Beddow Way. Picture: Barry Goodwin

If approved, a disused repair workshop in Beddow Way will be demolished in place of a single-storey building.

The site would be a base to carry out virtual post-mortems on residents who have lost their lives in unusual circumstances.

Most physical examinations currently take place in mortuaries in hospitals and local authority centres by pathologists - doctors who specialise in understanding the causes of disease - open bodies to remove organs for diagnosis.

On the virtual plans, a KCC spokesman said: "Kent's digital autopsy service will mean a significantly reduced number of invasive post mortems and quicker return of the deceased to their families for cremation or burial."

The site would be based close to a temporary morgue, also in Beddow Way, set up to cope with the rising number of deaths amid Covid. The morgue has capacity for 825 bodies, but no figures have been released on demand levels.

A temporary morgue off Beddow Way. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A temporary morgue off Beddow Way. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Around 104,000 people have died in the UK since the start of the pandemic last March, according to national statisticians today, however KCC's digital autopsy project has been in the works for the last three years, before the Covid outbreak.

The plans come amid fears that NHS mortuaries are struggling to store bodies as they do not have "sufficient capacity" to deal with the number of coroner cases, as well as their own hospital deaths.

Instead "temporary storage" must be paid for and hired by KCC, with a growing pressure on the coroner system as costs increase every year. Using digital technology will be quicker, cheaper and less intrusive to carry out, say KCC.

A County Hall spokesman said: "The new facility will deliver a better service to residents across the whole of the county. It will also have a permanent body store and overflow spaces to deal with any other emergencies in the future.”

The KCC spokesman added: "The need to be close to the Coroners Courts in Maidstone was essential, and it was preferable for it to be on land owned by us with good transport links to the rest of the county."

County Hall, in Maidstone, KCC headquarters. Stock picture
County Hall, in Maidstone, KCC headquarters. Stock picture

The county council is hoping to work with IGene to deliver the work, however no final decision will be made until a contract has been tendered.

For more than 10 years, the South Yorkshire-based company, has revolutionised the UK coroner service.

Staff work in a "computerised environment" to establish the cause of death. A radiologist carries out the procedure using CT scans of the deceased and produces a report to the coroner ahead of a review, usually for an inquest.

The firm, which has a base in Sheffield, has received recognition from the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip and former Prime Minister David Cameron.

A final decision on the plans will be made by KCC cabinet member for communities, Cllr Mike Hill (Con) after a virtual meeting on March 2.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice, click here.

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