A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through human populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide. Pandemics can cause high levels of mortality.
In 2008, the Department of Health published guidance on how to manage a pandemic, which includes advice on ‘end of life' care. The guidance requires that all Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities produce emergency plans to deal with the deceased in the event of a pandemic outbreak resulting in mass fatalities. We have had several enquires about this matter, in particular relating to licensing.
Emergency temporary storage facilities that are set up to relieve undertakers are not subject to licensing. This is because the bodies of the deceased are being stored prior to being buried or cremated and are not being stored for a scheduled purpose.
In cases where there is doubt about the cause of death and post-mortem examination is authorised, the bodies may be stored for up to seven days in the emergency temporary storage facility before being moved to the licensed premises where the post-mortem examination will take place. This is permissible under the Part 2 Section 16(7) incidental to transportation exemption.
However, in the case of a pandemic, there may be an increase in the number of people dying at home, which may in turn lead to a greater number of post-mortem examinations having to be authorised by the coroner. This will put added strain on mortuaries carrying out post-mortem examinations and may result in bodies being stored for longer than seven days in temporary facilities prior to an examination; these facilities will be subject to licensing. In some cases, it may be that the temporary facilities can be a satellite of existing licensed premises. The HTA will be able to advise on this.
If emergency temporary facilities are set up for the performance of post-mortem examinations, these will always be subject to licensing.
Mass fatality planning groups should seek advice from the HTA if they are uncertain about whether their arrangements would require premises to be licensed for the activities of storage and post-mortem examination in the event of a pandemic situation.