Bodies ‘left to decompose in NHS hospitals across England’

Bodies have been left to decompose in NHS hospitals across England, according to reports from inspectors.

Human Tissue Authority (HTA) officials said inadequate storage facilities and lack of freezer space meant some bodies had been left at inappropriate temperatures for too long.

According to official HTA guidelines, bodies should be moved to frozen storage after 30 days in the refrigerator or sooner, depending on the condition of the body.

However, a series of reports have revealed that NHS trusts do not always adhere to these rules and keep bodies in fridges for much longer.

‘Signs of decomposition’

In one case, at Leeds General Infirmary last year, a body had not been placed in frozen storage for 70 days and was showing “signs of decomposition”.

The HTA report said: “The inspection team noted a body that had been in storage for 70 days and which had not been placed in frozen storage despite being released by the coroner. This body showed signs of decomposition and had a dirty covering.

“A second body had been in storage for 47 days, had also been the subject of a coroner’s release notice and had not been placed in frozen storage and was showing signs of decomposition.”

Inspectors also said there was no cleaning schedule for the body storage area at Leeds General, and that “the door from the visitors area to the staff office is not provided with a lock… This provides potential access to the main mortuary.”

It comes after the publication of an independent inquiry report into the case of David Fuller, who sexually abused the bodies of more than a hundred deceased women and children at mortuaries in Kent, and called for tougher restrictions on access to the facilities and the introduction of camera surveillance.

In 2022, HTA inspectors also found major failings at the Royal Blackburn Hospital, discovering “two bodies in an advanced state of decomposition because they had not been moved to frozen storage after 30 days”.

‘Critical’ shortcomings

London’s King’s College Hospital experienced ‘critical’ shortages in 2022, with moldy and contaminated conditions for storing bodies.

“At the time of the inspection, there were several adult bodies that had been stored in the refrigerators for more than 30 days,” inspectors said.

“Although these bodies were checked regularly, there were signs of deterioration. Bodies had to be moved to cold storage to prevent further deterioration, but long-term storage was full.”

The John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford also had insufficient storage space and inspectors “identified a number of bodies that had been kept in cold storage for longer than the recommended 30 days and were beginning to show signs of deterioration.”

The Health Service Journal (HSJ), which first reported the issue, said at least 10 cases have been found across the country since 2022 where inspectors discovered one or more bodies had decayed.

Delays in death registrations

More than a quarter of a million people die in NHS hospitals every year. In England, a death must be reported to the municipality within five days. Although a doctor often records the cause of death, more complex cases may be referred to a coroner.

In such cases, the registration of a death cannot be completed until the coroner has completed his or her investigation, but experts warned that delays were piling up as ‘overcautious’ doctors referred more cases – often unnecessarily – to coroners.

A post-mortem examination should be carried out as soon as possible, with the NHS stating that this should usually be completed within two to three days.

But delays have led to bodies being held longer in hospitals, with many hospitals citing a lack of storage space as a reason why bodies were not transferred to a freezer.

The National Association of Funeral Directors had previously told The Telegraph that the “death care sector” was crumbling due to the “snowball effect of delays”.

According to the report, the causes include a shortage of pathologists, an increase in referrals from GPs to coroners, delays in the coronary system and plans to deploy medical examiners, exacerbating ‘bottlenecks’ in a system that is still is still reeling from the pandemic.

‘Make sure this doesn’t happen again’

An HTA spokesperson said the concerns came to light during the organisation’s on-site inspection process.

“The deceased should be stored at temperatures that maintain their condition and adequate storage facilities and alternatives should be available if necessary,” he said. “We expect all recognized institutions to adhere to our standards and ensure that the dignity of the deceased is preserved.

“Where we identify shortcomings, we work with the institutions to ensure that an action plan for improvement is put in place, lessons are learned and the matter is escalated within the institution where necessary.”

Many of the hospitals involved indicate that they have improved their processes since the inspection’s findings.

Dr. Magnus Harrison, the chief medical officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “Our aim is to provide a safe and dignified service in our mortuaries for people who have died, and unfortunately this was not the case in this case.

“We have now implemented improved systems including better communication with our coroner and respective partners to ensure this does not happen again.”

‘Treated with compassion and dignity’

A spokesperson for King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said this has “significantly increased the size of our mortuary provision”.

A spokesperson for Oxford University Hospital said: “We are committed to ensuring that our patients are always treated with compassion and dignity, even after death. Some deterioration of the deceased is expected under refrigerated storage, even for short periods, and would not normally meet the criteria for notification under the duty of disclosure.”

He explained that it is ‘common practice to transfer deceased persons to a cold storage facility if they are to be stored for more than 30 days, although this will depend on the condition of the deceased, the location and availability of suitable freezing space, and the likely time of transfer . for funeral directors, for whom receiving the deceased in a frozen state poses additional challenges and can delay a funeral.”

The spokesperson added: “The freezing itself affects the appearance of a body and is therefore usually avoided if the deceased is likely to move into the care of a funeral director in the very near future.

“The Oxford University Hospitals Mortuary has recently been refurbished and expanded to increase capacity in the context of increasing regional and national demand for mortuary facilities.”

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