A number of consultants have claimed that conditions are so bad at the University Hospital Waterford mortuary that dead bodies have been left on trolleys, often leaking body fluids on to the floor.

The complaints were made in a letter to the South-South West Hospital Group in Cork last October by four pathologists and first reported by the Waterford News & Star newspaper.

In the letter, the pathologists complained about a lack of refrigeration facilities and cramped conditions.

They said that the conditions had caused almost unspeakable distress to families.

The consultants said that some families had been forced to have closed-coffin funerals for their relatives because of the condition of their remains.

In the letter of 18 October 2018, the consultant pathologists said the facilities were "a gross affront to the dignity of the deceased and bereaved".

They said there had been an ongoing failure by the HSE to progress the provision of a new mortuary facility since 2006, when the brief for the project was completed.

They said that staff were exposed on a daily basis to significant biological (infection) and chemical risks.

The letter was signed by consultant pathologists Dr Rob Landers, Dr Nigam Shah, Dr Fergus MacSweeney and Dr Christine Shilling.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Miriam O'Callaghan, Dr Landers said a new mortuary was needed at the hospital as a matter of urgency and described conditions in the current mortuary as "quite primitive".

"The conditions, I suppose to put it bluntly, pose a risk both to staff, visitors and public at the mortuary and they afford very little dignity for the deceased bodies that come down to us," he said.

Dr Landers added that staff try to ensure bodies come through the mortuary as quickly as possible, as "if there are any delays, the consequences are very unpleasant and distressing".

He said that while plans for a new mortuary had been included in the HSE's capital plan in 2013, he had informally been told there was no intention to fund it until 2022 or 2023.

Dr Landers said the letter will give rise to huge concern to families, but it was sent as a last resort out of sheer frustration over the lack of progress.

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In a statement, the HSE said that University Hospital Waterford had recently received approval for a new replacement mortuary building. 

The HSE said that the hospital is currently examining interim arrangements to address the issues raised.

In a further statement, the South-South West Hospital Group said that a replacement mortuary for University Hospital Waterford was a priority.

It said the development was included in the draft capital plan sent to the Department of Health for approval. 

The group said it expected construction to start in the final quarter of this year, with a 20-month construction programme.  

The design phase of the development has been completed and the estimated cost of construction is €5m.

Minister says funding will be provided

A spokesperson for the Minister for Health Simon Harris said: "Minister Harris has made contact with the management of University Hospital Waterford this morning, who have assured him that they are to undertake interim measures while awaiting the replacement mortuary building.

"The minister also received confirmation from the HSE that plans for the new mortuary are at an advanced stage and it is expected the request for tender will be issued shortly.

"The minister has made it clear to the HSE that this project needs to be progressed as a matter of priority and funding will be provided."

Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said it was unacceptable that the consultants had to write the letter to "bring attention to the harrowing conditions they are working under".

Sinn Féin TD for Waterford David Cullinane said the contents of the letter were extremely disturbing and alarming.

He said it revealed the poor and antiquated state of the mortuary and post-mortem services at the hospital.

Journalist denied FOI access to letter

The HSE and South-South West Hospital Group denied access to the letter of complaint by the consultants, which had been sought under the Freedom of Information Act.

Details of the correspondence had been sought by Darren Skelton, a journalist at the Waterford News & Star.

In its reply on 12 April 2019, the HSE and South-South West Hospital Group denied access, stating that the release could contaminate the deliberative process in relation to the upgrade of the mortuary.

It also said there was a need to preserve confidentiality of deceased persons and their families having regard to the subject matter of the communications.

The newspaper obtained the letter in another way.

UHW facilities to be discussed at Cabinet next week

The standard of the facilities at the mortuary at University Hospital Waterford will be discussed by Cabinet next week, according to the Minister of State at the Department of Health.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Finian McGrath said he was shocked and upset by a letter from consultants at UHW highlighting serious concerns over mortuary facilities in the southeast.

Mr McGrath said he would "definitely" be discussing it in Cabinet next week, as well as in the Department of Health.

He said: "I have major concerns about it and we have to act on it, it is essentially that all families and people are treated with respect and in this particular case we need to ensure that proper standards are maintained and I am determined to get to the bottom of it and see what is actually going on."

The Independent Alliance TD said it was "unacceptable" that families were treated in this way.