Work has started on a temporary mortuary at Birmingham Airport with space for up to 12,000 bodies in a worst-case scenario amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
The airport is next to Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre (NEC), which has already been mooted as a possible location for a temporary field hospital.
The hangar facility will initially have space for 1,500 bodies “but will expand to hold more”, according to the West Midlands and Warwickshire strategic co-ordination group, made up of police, councils and other agencies.
It is understood the site could expand to accommodate up to 12,000 bodies.
The new site could ultimately take on all deaths across the region, including those unrelated to coronavirus – and regional mortuaries may close to staff the airport facility.
The West Midlands has emerged as a hotspot for people testing positive for coronavirus.
Latest official data recording deaths of those who had contracted Covid-19 showed that 40 of the 115 people who died in the most recent period – 34% – had come from the region.
Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council had been co-ordinating scoping, on behalf of all West Midlands and Warwickshire local authorities, to find possible sites for temporary mortuary space.
Other sites, including one in Rugby, Warwickshire, and the NEC itself, had been suggested as possible locations, before the option to use the airport site became available.
The airport said it would provide a hangar and land on the site’s cargo terminal, located on the old Elmdon airfield site, which is on the opposite side of the landing strip to the passenger terminal buildings.
A spokeswoman for the airport added it would “do its utmost” to help.
Senior Birmingham coroner Louise Hunt said: “We understand that it is a very difficult time for everyone and we will do all that we can to make sure bereaved families understand what is happening to their loved ones and to release them for funeral as soon as we can.”
The Government is making £1.6 billion available to councils to deal with pressures on existing services from responding to coronavirus.
The plans are being co-ordinated on behalf of councils in Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell, Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull and across Warwickshire.
Deputy leader of Sandwell Council Wasim Ali said: “In reality, we have to prepare for the worst as local councils.
“We’ve seen the numbers of deaths just keep rising.
“If it does get to that point, we have to be prepared.
“It’s a big logistics operation, so we have to take that decision to start the planning.”
He added: “We really don’t want to have to use it, but if we do, then it’ll be available.”
Mr Ali said a plan is needed because municipal mortuaries could run out of space.
The back-up mortuary would also give grieving families a breathing space to make funeral arrangements, if the system is placed under great strain, delaying how many burials can take place.
It is understood the NEC was initially raised as a potential location, but fell away after proposals were raised to turn it into a temporary field hospital.
Two other sites were then under consideration before the airport “came forward”, offering the required transport links and close proximity to the NEC, if it were to become a clinical facility.
“We’re really grateful to Birmingham Airport,” said Mr Ali.
He added that the fact that plans for such a mortuary are in hand shows just how serious the threat to the public from Covid-19 is, and urged people to follow official advice.
“If this goes ahead, I hope the public understand how serious this situation is.
“The very fact local government is having to consider this sort of measure should make that clear.”
The councillor also works part-time as an administrative clerk at Sandwell General Hospital, booking in patients.
He said staff at the hospital – and elsewhere in the health service – are working incredibly hard and need the public to help by staying at home, cutting non-essential journeys and following self-isolation rules.
Mr Ali added: “The clapping yesterday was phenomenal – people are coming together and understanding how important the NHS is.
“It is times like this that make you realise that fact, and we need that support to keep coming.”
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