A temporary mortuary site that will be able to hold up to 12,000 bodies is being built at Birmingham Airport in preparation for an expected rise in coronavirus deaths.
It comes as NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens confirmed Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre and Manchester’s Central Convention Centre are set to be converted into temporary hospitals.
London’s ExCel centre is already being turned into a temporary hospital due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work has begun on the mortuary site in Birmingham which will initially be able to accommodate 1,500 deaths before expanding to hold up to 12,000 bodies in a worst-case scenario.
It is expected the temporary site could ultimately accommodate all deaths across the West Midlands, including those not related to the coronavirus, as regional mortuaries may close due to staffing the new facility.
West Midlands Police has said it is “vital that the right facilities are in place to ensure we give the utmost dignity and respect at all times to those who die as a result of this illness”.
The force added it will do everything it can to accommodate religious requirements.
Senior Birmingham Coroner Louise Hunt said: “We understand that it is a very difficult time for everyone and we will do all that we can to make sure bereaved families understand what is happening to their loved ones and to release them for funeral as soon as we can.”
A Birmingham Airport spokesperson said: “Birmingham Airport can confirm that it is working with the authorities to provide land and a hangar for a temporary mortuary site at the Elmdon side of Birmingham Airport, to support with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This mortuary is anticipated to accommodate the deceased from across the region, including those not related to coronavirus. Birmingham Airport will do its utmost to support this multi-agency response during these difficult times.”
Birmingham’s NEC could hold as many as 5,000 beds for patients if it is turned into a temporary hospital, while the facility in Manchester could hold 1,000.
The armed forces are helping the Department of Health and Social Care in planning to expand hospital bed capacity across the country in anticipation of a spike in coronavirus patients.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is himself self-isolating after contracting the coronavirus, announced earlier this week that a temporary hospital will open at London’s ExCel Centre.
The Nightingale Hospital, which has been set up with the help of the military, is due to open next week with an initial capacity of 500 beds but with plans to expand to 4,000 beds if needed.
Another eight sites on top of Birmingham, Manchester and the ExCel Centre in London are being considered, with additional locations thought to include Newcastle and Glasgow.
The military is also expanding its ability to provide helicopters to transport patients, equipment and personnel around the country in support of the NHS during the coronavirus crisis.
Two helicopter hubs are being created – one to cover Scotland and Northern England, the other for the Midlands and Southern England, the Ministry of Defence said.
Three Royal Air Force Puma helicopters will be stationed at Kinloss Barracks in Moray.
They will work closely with a Chinook and a Wildcat helicopter based at RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire, responding to requests for assistance from NHS boards and trusts across Scotland and Northern England.
A second helicopter facility – comprising RAF and Royal Navy Air Service aircraft – for the Midlands and the south will operate out of The Aviation Task Force Headquarters at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Friday he will be self-isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Just hours later the prime minister’s chief medical officer Chris Witty confirmed he is also self-isolating after experiencing coronavirus symptoms.
Downing Street confirmed on Friday that 702,000 volunteers have signed up to deliver food and medicines, and perform other supportive tasks, for the 1.4 million vulnerable people isolated at home.