Registering the impact of COVID-19

By John Rooney | 01 June 2020

Since March colleagues across local government have shown real dedication in supporting vulnerable and concerned residents. People and communication skills have proven fundamental to how we work.

Our Registrars services have always been able to deliver statutory functions in a friendly and empathetic way. They’re used to supporting people through major life experiences in registering births, marriages, civil ceremonies, citizenship ceremonies and deaths.

Rochdale’s Registrars Service manager, Aileen Bollard, is an outstanding colleague with 35 years’ service experience. Aileen defines her role as ‘guiding people and documenting processes which will define their lives and shape our social history’. You see what she means within the archive at Rochdale Town hall, where bound registers dating back around 200 years tell the stories of life, poverty and death. It’s strange to think that in future records people will see causes of death from coronavirus in the same way that Spanish flu and small pox were once listed.

Registrars nationally have seen a reduction in staff and an increased workload subject to changing events and legislation. Services have had to become more flexible and income-driven, particularly in terms of offering packages around marriages and civil ceremonies. People now expect choice on how they register or celebrate life events.

In a small service, the personal demands on staff can be high, particularly in dealing with the recently bereaved or occasionally angry customers. As Aileen confirms ‘It’s really important that teams remain positive and focus on supporting customers as well as each other’.

The impact of COVID-19 on registrars has been massive. In March the guidance from the General Register Office seemed reactive and, although emergency legislation was provided on registering deaths, it took some time to clarify other service arrangements. In this void, there was increasing anxiety from staff and customers. When guidance to cancel registration of births and marriages did come through it brought relief, but also led to a surge in calls from disappointed and upset customers.

Within a few days, new processes were quickly put in place for registering deaths by phone and Rochdale Council allocated additional staff to support Registrars. Aileen was pleased that staff were able to quickly communicate with GPs, hospitals, and funeral directors on new arrangements. ‘Fortunately, the process of registering deaths by phone worked really well for the bereaved and the service alike and we’ve developed much stronger relationships with the health sector and funeral directors. This is something which should continue after the emergency legislation ceases.”

The cancellation of marriages has led to major loss of income for registrars across the country and upset for customers as legal paperwork only lasts for 12 months and there continues to be uncertainty as to when larger ceremonies can take place.

So what now?  Having dealt with all this change, Registrars are now working through plans on reopening after lockdown and managing the increased demand this will bring. There will be a surge in calls, particularly with a backlog of births to be registered. Instead of reverting back to old practices, North West registrars have suggested that technology should be used more and legislation be set to allow more registration to be done through zoom or skype.

The Government has announced the possibility of allowing small ceremonies to take place from June and further guidance is expected. For most councils this will be a challenge in managing these with adequate infection control and social distancing measures in our older buildings.  

Whilst it’s been a stressful time, there have been some real positives. Staff have been able to work well from home and registration of deaths by phone opens the door to modernising legislation. Aileen also cites the strengthening of relationships with funeral directors, partners GPs and hospitals. ‘I feel we’re working better together and are doing a really worthwhile job. I’m glad that we’ve been able to protect our staff whilst delivering our service in such a difficult time.’

The service is all about people. A few weeks ago, following detailed advice and clad in PPE, Aileen was able to conduct an emotional death bed marriage for a young couple. ‘You’re conscious that you are with someone at an intimate time, but you’re in a privileged position to grant them their dying wish’.

It takes a special kind of person to be a registrar.

With special thanks to Aileen Bollard for her time and dedication.

John Rooney is assistant director information, customers and communities at Rochdale BC

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