It’s been hard and emotional. The first few months, in the first wave we didn’t really know what to expect. Everybody saw the pictures from Italy with mass graves and none of us knew what the UK would look like in the following weeks or months. PPE was hard to get as all manufacturers were gearing up to provide the NHS, rightly so, but it left us very exposed. We had to source PPE from Amazon and eBay at extortionate costs to make sure our staff had the right protection when they were called to bring into our care a Covid positive deceased. There was conflicting information from PHE about how infectious a body was after death and for how long. We were bringing people into our care and being told days later that they were Covid positive.
At the highest levels our profession was fighting for recognition as key workers. Members of our professional association SAIF sat on the DEMAG group (Deceased management advisory group) along with representatives from Coroner’s service, crematorium and cemetery management. My daughter, Jo, has been actively involved in the SAIF pandemic task force and Local Resilience Forum group, discussing ways in which SAIF can help the independent sector during these times and making sure that up to date guidelines were sent out regularly so all funeral directors knew what restrictions were in place and when. She was also asked to represent West Kent funeral directors on the Kent resilience DMP Group, which for several months met daily, seven days a week. One of Jo’s tasks was to liaise with all funeral companies across West Kent on a daily basis to get mortuary space status whilst also fighting for our right to access PPE. When we were eventually able to access full PPE it had increased in price by sometimes as much as 200%.
We had to close the front door and do everything remotely: we had to close down our Friends Together groups: we had to stop using limousines; we had to tell families that they couldn’t come to visit their relative in the chapel of rest and that they had to restrict the numbers at a funeral. It was heart breaking for the staff who couldn’t provide the level of care they normally give. No more hand holding and hugs. During those difficult months we were supporting bereaved people with regular one to one phone calls, either from the Abbey staff or Friends Together volunteers. We set up conference calling and zoom meetings for our Friends Together members, trying to identify those in greatest need and giving them extra support.
Then summer came and it was all relaxed, daily death numbers fell and we breathed a sigh of relief until October when it all began again, only worse. Mortuary space across the county was seriously limited, the hospitals couldn’t cope because bodies couldn’t be released until the doctors had signed the paperwork. The doctors were too busy saving lives to fill in forms so there were long delays in the deceased being released to funeral homes. Funerals couldn’t go ahead without those certificates and the funeral director’s mortuaries were full as were the hospitals. Kent opened a temporary mortuary at Aylesford to relieve the pressure and Jo has been sitting on the Aylesford Liaison group to help support both the funeral directors of Kent as well as the staff at the temporary chapel of rest.
And then the vaccine came and a second national lockdown. The profession still had to fight to be recognised as frontline workers to get early access to vaccine and that only came a few weeks ago. Thanks to the efficiency of Kent Resilience, Jo was able to get Abbey and all funeral companies in West Kent access to the vaccination programme.
Now all our staff have now been vaccinated, keeping them safe in their work. Our offices are regularly cleaned by a specialist company giving us ‘Covid safe space’ status. Our limousines are fitted with Covid safe screens and are deep cleaned with a specific anti Covid treatment after each use and our staff wear gloves and masks on all funerals. All staff that attend private homes or nursing homes wear full PPE but we have also introduced regular lateral testing as added protection to give additional reassurance.
These are difficult times and so I hope that this explains a little how our family business continues to look after the families we care for and the communities we work in across #Tonbridge, #Tunbridge Wells and #Paddock Wood.