Bodies left to decompose in NHS hospitals due to inadequate storage and lack of freezer space, inspectors warn

Bodies of deceased patients have been left to decompose inside NHS hospital mortuaries across England, inspectors have warned.

Inadequate storage facilities and a lack of freezer space left some dead bodies for too long in unsuitable temperatures, the report said.

Inspectors at the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) have warned that NHS trusts were not always adhering to the rules around keeping bodies.

Official HTA guidance says that bodies should be moved into frozen storage after 30 days in refrigerators, or before depending on the condition of the body.

But these rules were not always being followed due to a lack of resources, the HTA warned.

In one specific case, at Leeds General Infirmary last year, the HTA said: "The inspection team noted a body that had been in storage for 70 days that had not been placed into frozen storage despite being released by the coroner.

"This body showed signs of decomposition and had soiled shrouding.

"A second body had been in storage for 47 days, had also been the subject of a coroner's release notification and had not been placed into frozen storage and showed signs of decomposition."

Inspectors also found there was no cleaning schedule for the body store at the hospital.

At the Royal Blackburn Hospital in 2022, inspectors found major flows including "two bodies in an advanced state of decomposition" after they weren't moved into freezers soon enough.

At King's College Hospital in London, inspectors reported "critical" shortfalls in 2022 with mouldy and infested conditions for the body storage.

The report added: "At the time of the inspection there were several adult bodies which had been stored in excess of 30 days in the fridge units.

"Whilst these bodies were subject to regular condition checking, signs of deterioration were present.

"Bodies required movement to freezer storage to prevent further deterioration however the long-term storage unit was at capacity."

Also in 2022, inspectors at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford found inadequate storage space and "a number of bodies which had been held in refrigerated storage longer than the recommended 30 days which were beginning to show signs of deterioration".

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In a separate case, inspectors found a body that had been left in refrigerators for 84 days, and in response the Royal Bolton Hospital said it increased its capacity for storing bodies in freezers.

The Health Service Journal, which first reported on the issue, said it had found at least 10 cases across the country since 2022 where inspectors discovered one or more bodies had started to deteriorate.

Dr Magnus Harrison, chief medical officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "Our aim is to provide a safe and dignified service in our mortuaries for people who have died, and unfortunately in this instance, this was not the case.

"We now have improved systems in place including better communication with our coroner and respective partners to ensure this doesn't happen again."

A spokeswoman for King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said: "Following an inspection report in 2022 by the HTA, we have significantly increased the size of our mortuary provision."

An Oxford University Hospitals spokeswoman said some deterioration is common in the refrigerated storage but the trust always took "great care" and treated patients with dignity, including after death.

She added: "Usual practice is to transfer deceased to frozen storage if they are to be stored for more than 30 days, though this depends on the condition of the deceased, location and availability of appropriate freezer space, and the likely timing of transfer to funeral directors, for whom receiving the deceased in a frozen state brings additional challenges and could delay a funeral.

"Freezing itself affects the appearance of a body, and therefore tends to be avoided when the deceased is likely to be moving to a funeral director's care in the very near future.

"The OUH mortuary has recently been refurbished and expanded to increase its capacity in the context of rising regional and national demand for mortuary facilities."

Medical Director and Deputy Chief Executive at East Lancashire Hospitals Trust, Jawad Husain, said: "We have a public and hospital mortuary at Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital that looks after around 3,000 deceased people every year. In the vast majority of cases funeral arrangements are made shortly after a person dies and we make every effort to provide a dignified service until that happens.

"There are some situations where a person has no family and if no next of kin can be found, the local council takes care of funeral arrangements. This means the deceased is in the mortuary for a longer period.

"When the Human Tissue Authority visited in 2022, sadly there were two people with no next of kin awaiting a funeral and our freezers, which are only used when bodies are with us after 30 days, were at capacity.

"We have put improvements in place and the Human Tissue Authority confirmed to us last year that it is satisfied we have addressed any issues raised following its inspection."

An NHS spokesperson said: "The NHS takes its responsibilities in this area seriously and all NHS trusts must follow the Human Tissue Authority's guidance on mortuary storage practices."