Straw poll on grave crisis

A straw poll among district councils across Northern Ireland yesterday revealed they are planning for at least 20,000 extra graves to cope with a possible flu pandemic. Ian Starrett, Johnny Caldwell, Laura Murphy and Philip Bradfield report on how different councils are managing.

Londonderry: Philip O'Doherty, Londonderry's Chief Environmental Health Officer, said this week that they have been drawing up emergency measures, which included plans for mass burial mounds for 4,000 people. He said that new research has shown that a flu pandemic could cause at least 3.5 per-cent of Londonderry's population to die.

In his report, presented to the council's Environmental Services Committee, he said: "Throughout the duration of any influenza pandemic it is likely that the council's workforce will be significantly depleted due to a variety of reasons including staff suffering from the flu, caring for sick relatives, caring for children in the event of school closures, being afraid to attend work and being unable to travel in the event of fuel shortages."

Belfast: community and recreation committee minutes from 16 January say: "The Director of Community and Recreation Committee stated that... discussions had concluded that an additional 4,000 graves would be required to provide adequate burial space in the event of a flu pandemic. He pointed out there were only 2,500 new graves remaining at the Roselawn Cemetery." Yesterday a spokeswoman said the council needed the new graves anyway, regardless of any plans for a flu pandemic, as the estimated number of deaths each year in Belfast is around 300-500.

Lisburn: under the direction of the Department of Health, along with other local authorities, Lisburn has contributed to emergency planning, conducted by the Pandemic Mass Fatalities Working Group. This has included planning for the consequences of a possible, but unlikely, flu pandemic. Around 250 burial sites have been identified as being immediately available in the event of mass fatalities, with other possible areas outlined for use in an emergency, if necessary. The council stresses the perceived likelihood of a flu pandemic is minimal.

Newry and Mourne: the council has made emergency planning for graves in the event of a flu pandemic over its three municipal cemeteries as follows:

Monkshill, Newry - 150 planned plus 3,500 in adjoining field;

Warrenpoint - 800 planned plus 1,500 in adjoining field;

Rostrevor - 800 planned plus 800 in adjoining field;

A total of 7,500 over the three cemeteries.

Craigavon: planning to allow 1,000 graves for the possibility of pandemic flu.

Antrim: the council is pro-active in its emergency planning. This includes business continuity plans for a wide range of services including those relating to public health. These plans have been in place for many months and are being continually reviewed and updated. At present there are 1,400 unallocated graves in Crumlin and Belmont cemeteries. There are also operational plans in place for burials on a 24-hour rota, if necessary. In the plans, it is estimated that between eight and 10 burials can be carried out per hour.

Ards: has been working with the Local Government Emergency Management Group, as have all other local authorities in Northern Ireland, to plan and prepare for any flu pandemic.

As part of that work, it has looked at the available (council-owned) grave space in the Ards area which amounts to 4,127 graves and these figures have been supplied to the group. Ards is not preparing for a specific number of deaths, quite simply because it says no-one knows what the fatalities will be. Where deaths are being estimated, the estimates are on a Northern Ireland-wide, not local government district, level.

For information, it is expected that between 25 and 30 per-cent of the population will be affected by any flu pandemic over a 20 to 24 week cycle and that 2.5 per-cent of those affected will be fatalities. Based on a population figure of 1.7 million (as at 2001 census) and using the 30 per-cent affected figure, by Ards' calculations, that leaves an estimated number of fatalities for the whole of Northern Ireland at 12,750.

Cookstown: the council is in the process of putting in place arrangements for dealing with an incident of this nature. These arrangements will be made in conjunction with guidance produced by DHSSPS and the Northern Ireland Office.

n Coleraine: the council has a comprehensive emergency plan which takes account of a range of potential civil contingencies. It would be wholly inappropriate, they say, to extract and highlight any particular aspect of the planning provision in isolation.

BALLYMONEY: referred queries to Mr Alastair Morgan at Northern Group Systems for information.

BANBRIDGE: the council has a total of around 3,000 graves available at Banbridge Public Cemetery and Dromore Public Cemetery. Over the last few years the council has extended both these burial grounds with the intention of planning for the future needs of the local community.

Omagh: planning is in progress and council is in contact with the Northern Ireland Office. No specific information about grave allocations at this stage.

Magherafelt: has a new cemetery 'Polepatrick Park Cemetery' with very little uptake in it currently. It's a 30 acre site and has provision for around 4,000 graves. "We believe we have sufficient space to deal with any emergency," said an official.

Fermanagh: just opened a brand new cemetery (Cross Cemetery) at the Irvinestown Road, Enniskillen. In total enough spaces for 6,000 burials - 3,000 burials from pandemic and 3,000 for normal circumstances. Council has been pro-active in addressing situation.

Larne: has not specifically set aside grave spaces within the borough for the purposes of the predicted influenza pandemic.

North Down: not officially been notified to take any action.

No responses as yet from: Armagh, Dungannon and South Tyrone; Limavady; Newtownabbey; Strabane; Moyle and Down (not contacted).