In Depth

Operation London Bridge: what happens when the Queen dies?

The monarch missed yesterday’s Cenotaph ceremony for first time in 22 years

The Queen pulled out of yesterday’s Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph due to a sprained back, sparking new concerns about the 95-year-old’s health. 

The monarch had not been present at the Armistice Day event at Westminster Abbey three days before, following the advice of her doctors to rest for two weeks. She had said that it was her “firm intention” to attend Sunday’s service. But just hours before, Buckingham Palace said the Queen would miss the Remembrance Sunday event “with great regret”.

The car ride from Windsor Castle to the Cenotaph and the amount of time “standing in the cold watching the ceremony” were clearly “just impossible” given her back sprain, said Jonny Dymond, the BBC’s royal correspondent. “In previous years, she may have weathered the pain,” he added. “But there is no getting round the fact that she is 95 years old.”

There have been “several intimations of royal mortality” in recent months, said Martin Ivens at Bloomberg. In October, she skipped a two-day trip to Northern Ireland following her doctors’ advice to rest, and spent the night at King Edward VII’s Hospital in Marylebone – her first overnight stay at a medical facility in eight years.

She also decided not to attend the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, where she had been due to host a major reception with world leaders, instead addressing the assembled delegates via a recorded video message.

“‘Long live the Queen’ was the proclamation made following her accession to the throne, but ever since her husband’s death her subjects are beginning to grasp that her life has a terminus,” said Ivens. Just as the Palace begins to transfer more of her duties to the rest of the royal firm, “the UK must begin to think the unthinkable: of life without her.”

Operation London Bridge

Long shrouded in secrecy, leaked documents obtained by Politico in September revealed the government’s planning for the days following the death of the Queen.

Codenamed “Operation London Bridge”, they lay out “the full extent of the preparations undertaken by the Royal Family and the Cabinet Office’s BRIDGES Secretariat” in “granular detail”, providing the most comprehensive account so far about how the country will respond to the passing of its longest-serving monarch.

The schedule includes “the latest plans drawn up by the Cabinet Office for Operation London Bridge, and include discussion of the coronavirus pandemic”, suggesting they have been revised recently.

‘D-Day’

Plans for what happens in the event of the Queen’s death have been in place since the 1960s, but were refined around the turn of the century. The first real insight into the preparations came in 2017, when The Guardian published a long investigation into “the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death”.

According to Politico, the Queen’s passing will trigger a “call cascade” in which “the prime minister, the cabinet secretary (Britain’s highest-ranking civil servant) and a number of the most senior ministers and officials” will all be informed immediately. The prime minister “will be informed by the Queen’s private secretary, who will also tell the Privy Council Office, which coordinates government work on behalf of the monarch”.

The Guardian explained that the “last time a British monarch died, 65 years ago, the demise of George VI was conveyed in a code word, ‘Hyde Park Corner’”. This time, the prime minister will be told that “London Bridge is down”.

“We have just been informed of the death of Her Majesty The Queen”, they will say to members of the cabinet, adding that “discretion is required”.

On the day referred to in the documents as “D-Day”, the royal household will then release an “official notification” letting the public know about the Queen’s death, reported Politico, while a “call script” has been prepared for permanent secretaries – the most senior civil servant of a ministry – to inform their ministers.

Ten-day mourning period

The Foreign Office’s Global Response Centre will alert the 15 governments outside the UK where the Queen is also the head of state, and the 36 other nations of the Commonwealth for whom she has served as a symbolic figurehead.

In keeping with tradition, once news of her death has been formally announced, a footman in full mourning dress will pin a black-edged notice to the gates of Buckingham Palace detailing a ten-day mourning period. Simultaneously, the palace website will post a similar message on a single black homepage.

The press

For many years the BBC was told about royal deaths first, “but its monopoly on broadcasting to the empire has gone now”, said The Guardian in 2017. Instead, the announcement will go out on a newsflash to the Press Association news agency, and the rest of the world’s media at once.

Almost every major news organisation has pre-recorded films, articles and news segments ready to go. It is thought that The Times has 11 days of coverage set to roll out, while Sky News and ITN, which have been practising for years substituting the name “Mr Robinson”, have already signed contracts with royal experts.

Commercial radio stations will be alerted through a network of blue “obit lights” which are supposed to light up in the event of national emergency. This gives DJs notice they will be switching to a special news bulletin and a reminder to play inoffensive music.

The funeral

The Royal Family “will announce plans for the Queen’s funeral, which is expected to be held ten days following her death”, Politico said.

On the day of her death, “there will be a service of remembrance at St Paul’s Cathedral” that will be attended by “the prime minister and a small number of senior ministers”. According to the leaked documents, the service will be planned to look “spontaneous”.

Should the Queen die at Balmoral in Scotland, “Operation Unicorn” will mean she is “carried down to London by royal train if possible”, the site added. If this is impossible, “Operation Overstudy will be triggered, meaning the coffin will be transferred by plane”.

Funerals for senior members of the Royal Family are organised years in advance, and have been overseen by the Duke of Norfolk since 1672. “Detailed plans are laid for the Queen’s funeral, and for the sequence of events - both in Britain and the 15 other realms - by which the new king is shown to the people,” according to The Telegraph.

As monarch, the Queen is automatically accorded a state funeral, and banks and the London Stock Exchange will be closed on the day. The service will be led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and will be attended by the Royal Family, politicians and heads of state from across the globe.

In plans codenamed “Operation Feather”, the Queen’s coffin “will lie in state at the Palace of Westminster for three days” between “D-Day+6” and “D-Day+9”, according to Politico. It “will lie on a raised box known as a catafalque in the middle of Westminster Hall” and will be “open to the public 23 hours a day”.

On “D-Day+6, a rehearsal will take place for the state funeral procession”. The day of the funeral will be marked by “a two minutes’ silence across the nation at midday”.

Various Whitehall departments are involved in the planning, with the Foreign Office “arranging the arrivals of heads of state and VIPs from abroad” and the Home Office “responsible for security arrangements”, the site added. The Department for Transport has “raised concerns that the number of people who may want to travel to London could cause major problems for the transport network, and lead to overcrowding”.

In 2017, The Guardian noted that “the Queen will be the first British monarch to have her funeral in the Abbey since 1760”, adding that the service will be attended by around “2,000 guests”, while “television cameras, in hides made of painted bricks, will search for the images that we will remember”.

Following the funeral in Westminster, there will be a “committal service in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and the queen will be buried in the castle’s King George VI Memorial Chapel”.

The succession

After the Queen’s passing, the Prince of Wales will automatically become king.

On “D-Day”, the prime minister will “hold an audience with the new king, and at 6pm, King Charles will deliver a broadcast to the nation”, the leaked documents reveal. The following day “the Accession Council – which includes senior government figures – meets at St James’ Palace to proclaim King Charles the new sovereign”. However, he won’t necessarily be called King Charles as royals can choose from any of their given names, meaning he could become King Philip, Arthur or George.

On “D-Day+3”, Charles will “receive the motion of condolence at Westminster Hall” before leaving for a “tour of the United Kingdom, starting with a visit to the Scottish parliament and a service at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh”.

This will be followed by a visit to Northern Ireland on “D-Day+4” where he will receive “another motion of condolence at Hillsborough Castle and attend a service at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast”. He will arrive in Wales on “D-Day+7” for a “motion of condolence at the Welsh parliament and attend a service at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff”.

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