Published: 13:29, 11 January 2021
| Updated: 17:01, 11 January 2021
Bodies are now being stored at a temporary morgue in Kent as the Covid-19 death toll rises and space runs out in existing mortuaries.
Kent Council Council built the mortuary at the back of its former county workshops in Beddow Way, Aylesford in April, during the first wave of the pandemic, but has confirmed it has been put into use from New Year's Day when the first body was stored there.
It can hold up to to 825 bodies and will be a resting place for those who died of Covid-19 and those with other causes behind their deaths. It is operated by the Kent Resilience Forum.
Cllr Roger Gough, council leader, said: “To have had to set this facility up is a stark reminder of the terrible cost of Covid-19. We know this is a difficult time for all our communities and especially for those who have lost loved ones to the virus."
Last year, the council announced it had set aside £11 million to plan for three such sites which aim to offer dignity and respect for those who have died. The Aylesford morgue is now the only one in operation.
It will not offer post-mortem tests.
Ashford county councillor Mike Hill (Con), who is KCC's cabinet member for communities, described the news as "sad".
Meanwhile, Maidstone County Hall opposition leader Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem) said the use of pop up mortuaries represented a "sobering reality" and 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 in bodies at an unprecedented rate."
The Beddow Way site has a floor space of at least 1,000 square metres and is expected to operate for 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
It took just 48 hours to make the site operational by New Year's Day.
It emerged today some 170 bodies are being kept in the temporary mortuary in Leatherhead, Suerrey which also first opened in April.
More than half of those kept at the facility died from Covid-19, a Surrey Local Resilience Forum spokesman said, as it was revealed the county's hospital mortuaries have the capacity to store 600 bodies, but are currently full.
The Leatherhead facility has room for 800 people.
Back in April, the county council confirmed the Aylesford site would only be used if existing mortuary space around Kent became full, adding: "The priority will be to maintain dignity and respect for those who have lost their lives and consideration for the bereaved."
Security and privacy hoardings were put place and the site is in the middle of several industrial units.
Latest government figures show the current number of deaths in Kent is 2,525, while Medway has seen 528 deaths.
Covid-19 related deaths rose by 52% in Kent in December, analysis by KentOnline showed.
By November 30, 1,453 people had died in Kent within 28 days of having a positive coronavirus, by December this had reached 2,220, an increase of 767.
In Medway, those who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test stood at 471 by New Year’s Eve - up from 258 since the last day of November.
Jo Williamson who runs Albany Funerals across the Maidstone and Ashford areas, said many funeral directors are now stretched to full capacity.
Hers is a smaller firm but currently dealing with 13 people - she estimates this equates to 80% - who have passed away due to Covid-19.
She added: "We are running to double the capacity for this time of year.
"We are now seeing what we expected to see in the first wave of the pandemic last year and we are juggling space in our mortuary. We would do everything to avoid it, but there is the possibility we could run out of space and I do know of some funeral directors who have had to turn people away."
She praised the work of her team and also paid tribute to staff at Vinters Park Crematorium, run by Maidstone Borough Council, which has added extra funeral times to try and cope with the backlogged numbers of people awaiting a service.
Mrs Williamson added: "Funeral directors having a full mortuary is not normal. Yet in the first lockdown, there was hardly any traffic, now it is back to normal and there are more people out and about so something doesn't feel right.
"For every person we care for, there is a family behind the tragedy of losing someone."
Michael Lawrence, managing director of The Family Funeral Service in Bearsted, who used his limos last year to transport people to Covid test sites said his firm was managing, but warned families there is currently around a five-week wait for a service on popular days such as Fridays.
He added: "The scary thing is, there are also delays in collecting the deceased from hospital mortuaries. At Medway for instance it is not uncommon to see six ambulances waiting for around an hour."
Funerals are currently limited to 30 people, but Mr Lawrence urged families to embrace technology, saying: "It can open up funerals from 30 people to 330."
Maidstone council this week warned people Vinters Park Crematorium was seeing a rise in the number of services it was hosting and reminded mourners to wear masks and follow social-distancing.
Sharon Smith, bereavement services manager at Maidstone Borough Council said: “Sadly, the winter months do see an increase in the number of services we undertake, however, we are also seeing an increase in deaths relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.Personal safety is paramount at this difficult time and we ask that everyone takes necessary precautions.”