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COVID CRISIS: Coroners seeing 'distressing' number of deaths in pandemic

Friday 22nd January 2021

THE county's coroners are handling a “distressing” number of deaths caused by the coronavirus crisis, it has emerged.

Around 300 people were referred to the county’s investigatory service last week, which is double the number of weekly deceased cases recorded in the first wave of the pandemic between March and June.

Coroners are determining the cause of death for three times the number of referrals they dealt with before Covid last year, which was 100 weekly cases.

Stephanie Holt-Castle, who is Kent County Council’s (KCC) director of planning and enforcement, said the demand on the coroner service is “phenomenal”.

Speaking to a virtual panel of county councillors, she said: “We are more than double the demand on the coroners service during this lockdown.

“It is a distressing job to work in, even though our staff are very experienced in this challenging area.”

Four area coroners oversee the work from bases across the county, including at County Hall, in Sessions House, Maidstone. They will decide the cause of death and its circumstance through an inquest.

At the current rate, the officials would be handling 1,200 deaths a month.

This comes three weeks after an emergency morgue in Aylesford was stood up to store the first body, on New Year’s Day, as the Covid-19 death toll rises. The former county workshops, in Beddow Way, has capacity for 825 people.

Meanwhile, around 1,333 deaths were registered by KCC between January 1 and January 16, representing a 50% increase over the same period in  2020.

James Pearson, who is the head of registrations at KCC, said it was a “sad reflection” of the Covid crisis.

At the online council meeting, he said: “There is a personal impact that our staff are seeing on a daily basis.

“Registering deaths all day does take its emotional toll. Often we are the first person that an informant might be talking to and they understandably want to tell us their stories.”

Death registrations continue to be conducted via the phone as more deaths come through, many for Covid-related reasons, the committee was told.

Mr Pearson said: “It is worth remembering on the journey of this pandemic that it was not possible to register deaths anyway other than a face to face appointment in a building.”

The rising death registration demand has led to the relocation of some staff  from other county council departments to provide emergency aid.

It means that birth registration services have been put on hold again, until further notice, apart from 75 “exceptional” cases that were carried out.

Kent county councillor Jeremy Kite (Con), also Dartford Borough Council’s leader, warned about the likelihood of a “large backlog” of families seeking to register their newly born child.

In the first lockdown, thousands of parents were waiting to register their newborn’s birth as the service faced a backlog of more than 3,500 families.

When services return, Mr Pearson said: “We will prioritise those we have had to cancel, or, who urgently need to be seen.