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Families are left waiting for funerals as coroner’s service ‘overwhelmed’

But coroner declines to comment

05 November, 2020 — By Tom Foot

ST PANCRAS coroner’s service has become “over­whelmed” by the second wave of Covid and staff shortages with dozens of families now waiting for weeks to be able to arrange funerals for their loved ones.

Privately, coroner Mary Hassell has said it is “impossible to provide the service that all families deserve.”

Nearly 50 families are caught in a waiting list queue while grieving.

But when asked by the New Journal about the backlog that families are facing for bodies to be released, and despite the public concern, the local coroner’s service has declined to comment.

The problems were revealed after the death of John Atkins who sold flowers in South End Green, Hampstead, for more than three decades. His relatives have been waiting more than three weeks to get permission to lay him to rest.

John Atkins Snr died last month

The body has now been released but the hold-up means the funeral of the 83-year-old, who died peacefully at home, will take place under stricter lockdown restrictions.

In a letter to his family, Ms Hassell said: “The reason for this is because we are short of coroner’s officers, and we operate on split sites without resilience. Before we had any cases of Covid-19 reported to St Pancras Coroner’s Office we were short-staffed, and as we move into the second wave, we have been overwhelmed.

She added: “I am afraid that as of today there are 47 other families who are in your family’s position. At the present time it is impossible to provide the service that all families deserve.”

The Atkins family had complained to the coroner about the delay and also raised an issue about the abrupt telephone manner of court staff.

Ms Hassell’s letter said “It is of course completely unacceptable that you should be shown anything other than courtesy and compassion by my office”, adding: “It grieves me to send a letter such as this one. I am so very sorry that we have added to your family’s distress at this already tremendously difficult time.”

Mr Atkins’ son, John Atkins junior, learned the day after last week’s front-page story in the New Journal about the issues with the service that there would be no need for a post mortem and the body could be released.

The father and son had run the popular flower stall close to the Royal Free in Pond Street, South End Green, for 37 years and the family is well-known around Kentish Town and Queen’s Crescent. Numbers at the funeral service will have to be limited now after a new national coronavirus lockdown was declared, starting today (Thursday).

Official figures show that in the past five months, the number of all deaths in Camden has settled around an average of between 13 and 26 deaths each week. In the first week of April, at the peak of the Covid pandemic’s first wave, the weekly death rate in Camden had soared to an unpreceden­ted high of 129 deaths.

This week, Mr Atkins said: “I think it’s just badly run because if you’ve got more people dying, you got to just get more people in to help. “If I have to do flowers for a lot of people, I’ll get someone in to give me a hand. I’ll go down there and work for a month for free. Have some passion, have some compassion.”

John Atkins Jnr carries on their flower stall in South End Green

One of the 47 other families continuing to face long waits for their relative to be assessed by the coroner includes Maria Padilla, who contacted the New Journal this week following last week’s story.

Her 82-year-old mother, a cleaner who lived in Holborn, died on October 20. The family was told by undertakers the process would take just a few days, but on Tuesday this week she said she was told to “call back next week to see if there is any news”.

She added: “No reason has been given to me for this, we’ve just been told there is a backlog. To add 20 days it seems like a very long time.”

Ms Padilla said the family had hoped to fly her mother’s remains back to her country of birth in Spain, where many funerals normally take place the day after a death.

The coroners’ system of investigating the circumstances of unexplained deaths, sometimes through court inquests, dates back to medieval times. In theory, a coroner is one of the most powerful roles in any area, and even holds the power of arrest.

But a row over how accountable they are developed in recent years when Ms Hassell rejected a request to allow quicker burials for families who had cited faith reasons, including members of the Jewish and Muslim communities. This led to legal action.

The New Journal asked the St Pancras Coroner’s Office for comment last week after learning of Mr Atkins’ case but was told we would not receive one.

Camden Council, which provides administrative support to the coroner but says it does not deal with press enquiries on her behalf, also declined to comment when approached.

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