London - As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies across the globe as well as in the UK, British experts have made stark warnings about the impact of COVID-19 on local authorities.
A major increase in mortality rates and staff absences will mean a struggle to issue death certificates, leading to a bottleneck in burials and cremations, with mortuaries filled beyond capacity, said the experts from the University of Huddersfield in the UK.
According to the study, published in the journal Emergency Management Review, even if fatality rates are at the lower end of expectations - one per cent of virus victims - it is highly likely that death and bereavement services will be overwhelmed.
"Underestimating the mortality rate could reduce the effectiveness of business continuity plans, whereas knowing what to expect will focus attention on the resources required," the authors wrote.
The study by Dr Julia Meaton, Dr Anna Williams and researcher Helen-Marie Kruger, has drawn on a wide range of data that includes the experience of previous pandemics and analysed the readiness of a local authority in England in order to appraise the scale of the challenge.
"An option would be to have an escalating business continuity plan, where the service prepares for a worst-case scenario, which can then be scaled back depending on the anticipated mortality rate," the authors added.
The findings are based on research carried out in 2019, examining the potential impact of a flu pandemic, but the authors have updated and adapted their facts and figures so that conclusions and recommendations are of immediate relevance.
"The personal tragedy and loss will be unquantifiable," wrote the University trio, adding however that the focus of their paper is on how authorities will manage excess deaths.
For example, burial and cremation services could be beyond capacity four or five weeks into the outbreak.
Limited cemetery and body storage space will also be a major problem, with mass graves a possibility, although this would be highly controversial and would upset and anger many communities, stated the authors.
They have examined the role of coroners and analysed the continuity plans drawn up by local authorities in the event of a pandemic, finding a number of flaws.
In making recommendations, the authors stated that both registration and bereavement services know the death toll will increase during a pandemic but are unsure of the actual figures to plan for.