'Stretched to the limit' - Funeral directors describe 'unbelievable pressure' of second Covid wave
- Credit: Archant
“The pressure here is unbelievable,” says John Harris, a partner at T Cribb & Sons funeral directors.
It is 4.30pm on Tuesday, January 5. The police have just called the company, which has branches across east London and Essex, to go and collect another body from inside a house. Calls like that are expected to continue throughout the night.
As Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths rise, evening and weekend calls are now “four to five times more than we would normally experience,” says John.
“Under normal circumstances, staff would be at home and you would call them out. The last few weekends and evenings, staff have just not been going home. They’ve just been going from one call to another."
During the day staff are equally swamped.
“I get up at five in the morning, go straight into the office – and I get home at nine or ten at night, have a quick shower and go to bed,” says John. “It’s endless.”
Before Christmas, Havering’s council leader Damian White issued a stark warning to residents.
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“Our local hospitals are at and above capacity,” he said. “Our registrars service are seeing a significant increase in death registration – which is having a deeply personal impact on them and putting stress levels at dangerous highs, and local funeral directors are reporting more demand than they can cope with.”
Since then, the number of beds occupied by Covid-19 patients at the Barking, Havering and Redbridge NHS trust has continued to increase.
“The second wave finally arrived with us yesterday,” says Carol Lawrence, director of Harold Wood Funeral Services. “We’re praying it doesn’t last longer than the seven or eight weeks it lasted last time.”
Prior to the first wave of Covid-19, the most demand Carol had ever experienced was during an exceptionally bad winter in 2014/15. But during March, April and May 2020, demand on the firm was even higher than it had been during that winter five years earlier. Bookings were up more than 60 per cent, compared to a normal year.
“Everyone cancelled their time off without being asked, even at Easter,” she says. “Colleagues came in six and seven days a week. Part-timers became full-timers.”
It was a “heartbreaking” experience, says Carol – and now it looks set to happen again, with bookings up 40pc.
During the first wave, the firm was handling so many deaths that it had to put up extra whiteboards to keep track of bookings. This week, the extra whiteboards have gone back up.
Both T Cribb & Sons and Harold Wood Funeral Services have had to take on extra staff due to the pandemic. The former has also had to expand its mortuary space.
Bennetts Funeral Directors has seen demand increase by 40pc in the last fortnight.
“We are dealing with those in the best way we can,” says managing director Jane Bennett. “All of the local independent funeral directors work together and help each other out as much as possible.”
Hospital staff are “completely overwhelmed and exhausted,” she adds. “We can only hope that with the new lockdown, the numbers of fatalities and those succumbing to the virus falls dramatically.”
John has spent today making calls to see whether funeral directors qualify for priority vaccination. His staff are sent into hospitals and homes every day to collect the bodies of people who have just died from Covid-19. Several staff have contracted the virus, but fortunately, none so far have suffered severe symptoms.
“I’ve got a couple of staff off at the moment,” he says. “We can’t hide from it.”
He doesn’t want to dramatise the situation, he says, but adds: "People need to understand that this is serious. You see all that rubbish in Brentwood, with the rave, and you think to yourself, what’s wrong with people? Or the demonstration outside St Thomas’s Hospital, saying it was a hoax. I mean... God.
“They need to come down here for half a day. They would realise it’s real. It’s really serious. If anyone has got any questions about this being made-up, they are more than welcome to come down and have a look. When you’re at the sharp end of it, it’s very real.”