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Funeral directors told to make masks out of 'towels and bin liners' | World news

Funeral directors are being told to create makeshift face masks out of “towels, bin liners and incontinence pads”, as they remove the bodies of coronavirus victims, because of a severe shortage of protective equipment in the UK.

Faced with the unprecedented task of retrieving and arranging the burial and cremation of growing numbers who have died of Covid-19, funeral staff say they are increasingly concerned at the risk because of the lack of masks and protective gowns.

With the death toll from the virus mounting, they are calling for a minister to take charge of burials and cremations, and warning of a backlog of bodies.

The Lancashire coroner has advised funeral directors to treat all sudden deaths in the community from now on as a suspected coronavirus fatality because people with symptoms have been told to self-isolate and may be undiagnosed victims.

Symptoms are defined as either:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

After 14 days, anyone you live with who does not have symptoms can return to their normal routine. But, if anyone in your home gets symptoms, they should stay at home for 7 days from the day their symptoms start. Even if it means they’re at home for longer than 14 days.

If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.

If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.

After 7 days, if you no longer have a high temperature you can return to your normal routine.

If you still have a high temperature, stay at home until your temperature returns to normal.

If you still have a cough after 7 days, but your temperature is normal, you do not need to continue staying at home. A cough can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.

Source: NHS England on 18 March 2020

In a document sent to funeral directors, the coroner said: “Police and removals undertakers attending a sudden death where Covid-19 is suspected should before moving the body ensure that the deceased’s mouth and nose are covered.

“This could be as simple as using a towel, bin liner or something like an incontinence pad cut to fit over the mouth and nose.”

Louise Winter, a funeral director who runs Poetic Endings in London, said: “If someone has died with an infectious disease, we are supposed to put a mask over their mouth and nose, as well as use one ourselves, because of the infection risk from their mouth and nose.

“But we are short of masks and protective equipment, and they are trying to find a solution. If the advice is to go into a nursing home or a house and use a bit of towel or an incontinence pad, that is not OK. People in the profession are getting very worried.”

Funeral directors said there are also a shortage of body bags, which are required when dealing with infectious disease deaths.

Dr James Adeley, the senior coroner for Lancashire, Blackburn and Darwen, who sent the advice on makeshift masks, said he had great sympathy for the concerns of undertakers.

He said he had sourced some plastic aprons and paper masks to try to provide protection but the recommendation from Public Health England (PHE) of a full suit, gloves, visor and mask was not available.

“What we were doing was simply trying to take those measures that we could to protect the health of those that are going to be dealing with deceased people who are very possibly highly infective,” said Adeley.

David Holmes, who has been in the profession for more than 40 years, said: “First they told us we needed to wear full PPE [personal protective equipment], that’s a full white forensic suit, mask and goggles.

“Then last week they told us none of that was necessary – what happened was they discovered that no one had adequate supplies of equipment. It clearly puts funeral directors at greater risk and our staff are not happy.”

Crematoria and burial services normally deal with about 600,000 deaths a year.

Holmes said there was a lack of coordinated planning for the scale of deaths to come, which would put the whole system under intense pressure. He warned that without action there would be a backlog of bodies. “A minister needs to be put in charge of this. There is no planning going on and there is going to be a scandalous logjam.”

The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors has warned its members to err on the side of caution when dealing with a suspected Covid-19 death.

In advice to members, it said PHE had last week downgraded the protective equipment needed. “We are not comfortable with this,” the society said, warning funeral directors to use “a mask, double gloves and an apron as PPE” at all times.

“PPE supplies are drastically short. We have requested the Cabinet Office fast-track supplies to funeral homes.”

It added: “If you are limited on masks, use wadding, dressing or bandage to cover the face during the removal. This should reduce the risk to staff from any droplets of contaminated air.”

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