EXCLUSIVE: Urgent action on crisis at Gloucestershire Coroners Service
By Laura Enfield | 15th November 2023
Urgent work is needed to deal with a growing crisis in Gloucestershire Coroners Service.
A spike in cases, rising costs, failing equipment and an aging court complex have resulted in budget overspending and a lack of staff.
A red flag has been raised about the disastrous consequences if its cold storage breaks down and a critical search is underway to find back-up facilities.
A report to the county council yesterday (Nov 14) said: "There are no other licenced premises in the county able to accommodate our capacity in the event of a catastrophic failure of the outdated equipment."
The replacement of the condensers and evaporators became a "high-risk factor" during a routine inspection of the refrigeration equipment. They would take up to three weeks to replace and bosses have started "urgent contingency planning'.
There are also concerns about the Coroner's Court complex in Gloucestershire which has capacity for 62 bodies but has not received any capital investment since it opened in 2012 and is "beginning to show signs of wear and tear."
The report by Mark Preece, chief fire officer for Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue, said: : "Machinery and equipment have begun to fail, break down and come to the end of its anticipated natural shelf life.
"Some equipment is now obsolete and needs replacement. The mortuary fridge condensers and evaporators are at the end of their working life and the wrong refrigerant is in the system and now needs to be phased out."
Nationally the number of deaths is at record high, and around 40% of them or 208,400 were referred to corners in 2022, meaning more post-mortems, investigations and inquests are needed each year.
Gloucestershire Coroners Service deals with 2,500-3,000 death referrals per year, 300 inquests per year and produces circa 1,000 Coroner Authority forms to support issuing of a death certificate.
It has carried out 450 autopsy examinations since the start of 2023 while trying to deal with a growing need for complex toxicology reports and a "significant decline" in the number of trained pathologists across the UK due to those retiring not being replaced.
In 2022 the cost of pathology work was £165,000, histology and toxicology costs £128,000 and everyday mortuary consumables £28,000. An uplift in the 2022/23 budget is predicted to fall short of the costs already being experienced during the first two quarters of 2023.
Mr Preece said: "Following Covid, the number of deaths in winter have increased. We thought that trend would go back after Covid but sadly it's maintained.
"So it's about future proofing the coroner's because that demand doesn't look to be easing off anytime soon."
He told members of Gloucestershire County Council's Adult Social Care and Communities Scrutiny Committee the Gloucestershire service desperately needs more funding for new equipment, especially to deal with an increasing number of larger bodies.
He said: "Obesity is becoming a far more frequent issue and we need to provide the right equipment. We have got facilities for larger deceased people but it's the fact that it's becoming far more prevalent."
Pressures on the service, which is administered but not run by the county council, have been mounting over the last 18 months.
A report from July 2022 revealed the service was already struggling with increased costs and staffing and the £1.2m budget for 2022/23 had to be supplemented by two bids for MTFS (Medium Term Financial Strategy) funding.
In December 2022 the coroners court experienced the highest number of referrals and post mortem requests since it opened in 2012 and had a rapidly increasing backlog of cases.
It bought 32 additional storage bays to help and 12 will remain housed within the body store at the court until at least the end of 2023.
At the time Mark Preece revealed a £35k overspend in the department due to additional fees to pathologists introduced in September 2022. He said the service was making another MTFS bid to cover the predicted £75k annual cost.
Cllr Lisa Spivey (LB, South Cerney) chair of the committee, questioned why a bid had not already been submitted.
She said: "I'm surprised at that because I feel you've flagged to us the vulnerability of the system. So I'm just wondering why you haven't done that?"
Mr Preece said: "We've got some stuff to ponder. We're looking to stabilise the team and that future will become clearer in the next couple of months in terms of the capital investment.
"We're starting to do exploratory work about tenders and prices to inform the future bid.
"Be assured work is underway. It just wasn't completed in time for this year's MTFS.
"Any overspend related to the functions of the coroner is now being met by the authority already, so at no time has the function of the coroners service been compromised.".
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