COVID-19: SAIF’s response

words: Terry Tennens, National SAIF CEO
COVID-19 response

When the effects of COVID-19 began to strike the UK in March 2020, confusion reigned. With no previous outbreak on this scale to draw comparison or lessons from, the issues facing the funeral sector were often difficult to navigate in the months that followed. However, SAIF remained committed to getting the best information for members, and recognition of the hugely important role they have played as the nation faced one of its toughest challenges.

Over the next two issues, SAIFInsight talks to SAIF’s CEO, Terry Tennens, to examine how the challenge has brought improvements to our sector, and what lessons we have learned.

This month, we begin with how independents faced up to the pandemic and how necessity has been the mother of invention for SAIF and its frontline members…

Forming a united front

“On Friday, March 20, 2020, I had a meeting with a number of key sector members from the Association of Private Crematoria and Cemeteries, the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, the Funeral Furnishing Manufacturers’ Association, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management and the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD). Then, on March 24, we all met the Cabinet Office and that kicked off a weekly meeting with them.

“There was a contingency plan, from 2008/2009, which SAIF and the NAFD had agreed with the UK Government, but they just didn’t follow it. Instead, we were all scrambling to find out information from Public Health England, the Department of Health, and the devolved Governments. So, we just thought, hang on a minute, we need to co-ordinate, so the Deceased Management Advisory Group (DMAG) was formed. That meant we could co-ordinate our efforts to find answers, whether it was on clarification of mourner numbers, limousine use, or whether clients could view the deceased.

“A big challenge for us in the Cabinet Office meetings, and across the Local Resilience Fora was that they just wouldn’t share the modelling with us. And we kept petitioning them and arguing our case. We’re still meeting weekly, representing the four nations. How we stop delays is the driver for all of these meetings.”

Finding answers

“Part of the challenge DMAG faced was that often there weren’t immediate solutions to the questions members needed answered. At first it wasn’t clear what we were dealing with and no one knew what the risks were to funeral staff and their families, so we were slow out the blocks in the first ten days and then as an organisation we really stepped up. During the first wave, from March to July, we were working 15-hour days, scrambling to find the answers to issues members faced, whether that was body bags, limousine use or the protection of funeral staff.

“We did everything possible on our members’ behalf, including me fielding calls with the Department of Health to get answers, or else getting them to research things. The HQ team was outstanding, as Claire, Corrine, Angela, Maria and Sam hunted around for PPE suppliers, which was the priority issue to begin with, and offered guidance to the many very distressed funeral directors who called.”

Learning processes

“Sharing key information has been hugely beneficial. Take Jo Parker’s experience of dealing with the Kent Local Resilience Forum. Care homes asking for funeral staff to be tested on arrival to do a removal was a case in point. However, testing and clearance takes 45 minutes, so it completely messes with any scheduling and was deemed unnecessary as the staff had probably been tested in the office. When the same was mooted in Scotland, Joe Murren was able to really push back to the Burial and Cremation team at Holyrood by illustrating how it would skew the whole management of the death process.”

Creating solutions

“Despite lots of frustration among funeral directors who couldn’t do what they really wanted to for their families, their agility has been amazing. Their ability to respond to families in the restricted times with FaceTimes, Zoom and drive pasts was admirable. George Locke, in Warwickshire, used Perspex over the coffin so that families could still see their loved one, but obviously, couldn’t touch them. That was a very creative solution. And the plastic screens in limousines helped families further.”

Improving communication

“We quickly began doing a SAIF bulletin every day to meet the need for answers. I’d have the DMAG meeting each day 4-6pm, then I would work on a bulletin with Mark Binnersley, our PR advisor, to go out to all members around 8pm. Now we’re doing one bulletin a week, which can help us react as members’ needs change. For example, when the First Minister of Scotland talked about mourner numbers rising to 50, there were lots of questions around social distancing, so we had more to say as we responded to those issues.”

Working differently

“In the SAIF office, we were closely monitoring the situation around the country by phoning SAIF members across the four nations and this was really an early warning sign – if there was a problem emerging, we could spot it. SAIF Scotland’s early use of Slack, and its subsequent roll-out across the rest of the SAIF members in the UK, was great too. It’s just such a great tool.”

Achieving recognition

“The biggest challenge SAIF and the NAFD faced was getting funeral directors recognised as essential workers. Once we had achieved that, getting the vaccination early for funeral directors was the next hurdle. On November 27, I drafted the letter DMAG sent to Professor Pollard, the chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), warning them that funeral directors were potential super spreaders because they were going into care homes, hospitals and individuals’ homes. We felt that they could really ignite an infection rate. When we had no reply, we wrote again, and pressed through the Ministry of Justice, who met with the DMAG.

“In the second half of December, JCVI changed its guidance to include funeral operatives and, although there was some dissatisfaction in DMAG because it didn’t include crematorium or burial and cemetery staff, it meant that funeral directors were part of the vaccination programme when it began in early January. That was a huge win.”

Next issue we reveal stress points encountered by DMAG, and the sector-wide lessons learned.

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