The unit, which stands at the back of the hospital, is providing 36 extra spaces for bodies that cannot be accommodated in the 80-space mortuary. "People were dying all over Norfolk," said Mark Langlands, spokesman for the Norfolk and Norwich Healthcare NHS Trust. "We had to do something." The hospital, which has the county's main mortuary, had found no vacancies at the other hospitals in Norfolk.
The rise in the number of deaths had coincided with the Christmas holidays, which meant fewer funeral directors were arriving to collect bodies for burial and cremation.
A statement by the trust said it had "acted promptly to deal with a big increase in deaths" throughout Norfolk. "The public can be assured the deceased are treated with the utmost respect by our staff, who are working under extreme pressure at this time," said the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital's chief executive, Malcolm Stamp. "This is a short-term measure, but in the circumstances it is the right one. The pressure on beds has eased in the last few days but the situation does remain serious."
Watton-based Edmonds International Transport, which lends refrigerated food trailers to the hospital, has rented out the unit for the next few weeks. Its usual clientele includes supermarkets needing deliveries or businesses dealing with wax or leather, which need to be kept at certain temperatures. It had never before been called on to provide a deep-freeze for bodies.
Philippa Edmonds, who runs the business with her husband, said yesterday: "I must admit my first reaction was to say no. Then I thought `Well, we can't just leave them'. In hindsight, perhaps I did the wrong thing. So long as people know that we don't use the same trailers to deliver to local supermarkets."
The hospital has fitted the 12-metre-long unit with shelving to take the extra bodies.
"They were absolutely desperate," said Mrs Edmonds. "No one else would help. It was better than the alternative, which would have meant putting all the bodies in one room together. It does do the job while they don't have any room."
The unit is storing bodies just above freezing, at 2C, which is the same level as the hospital's mortuary. The lorry is parked next to the mortuary and a loading bay used for the hospital's laundry.
Mr Langlands said: "We are using the unit at the moment and we are coping at the moment and we have no plans at this time to bring in another.
"It's a short-term measure, but in the circumstances it was the right one to take. We cannot put a timescale on it. The situation remains serious and we can't estimate when things will get back to normal."
The hospital is a rambling redbrick Victorian building in the centre of Norwich, due to be replaced in two years by a modern facility on the edge of town.
The crisis in the mortuary has not spread to the rest of the hospital which, doctors said yesterday, was functioning normally. But a spokesman did confirm that the seriousness of the flu outbreak in the area had led to the cancellation of all routine surgery.
The spokesman added: "The Association for Influenza Monitoring and Surveillance has predicted that eight out of 10 homes in the Norfolk area will be hit by flu, colds or coughs in the coming weeks.
"Because of the high number of deaths we have had over the Christmas period we are effectively facing a major incident with this situation."
Members of the public will not have to go into the trailer: there is a purpose-built viewing room at the hospital.Reuse content