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What is ‘Operation London Bridge’, the British protocol for the day Queen Elizabeth II dies

The phrase ‘London Bridge is down’ was used to inform family members, foreign diplomats and top officials that the monarch has passed away.

The phrase ‘London Bridge is down’ will be used to inform family members, foreign diplomats and top officials that the monarch has passed away.
Samir HusseinGetty

Buckingham Palace confirmed that Queen Elizabeth II died this afternoon at Balmoral. Her health had deteriorated in recent days, requiring her be placed under medical supervision after doctors were “concerned” about her health.

Her son and the now King regent Prince Charles arrived at Balmoral, the Royal family’s Scottish summer residence, earlier, with the rest of the family, including Charles’ children Prince William and Prince Harry also travelling to Balmoral.

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Change of monarch for the UK

After 70 years on the throne the United Kingdom is about to experience a change of monarch for the first time in multiple generations. The Queen’s eldest child, Prince Charles, is next in line for the throne and is now technically the monarch, with the Queen having passed away.

What has now kicked in is a complex process to release the message and announce details of the succession.

What does ‘London Bridge is down’ mean?

Planning for the death of Elizabeth II has been in place for decades, with governments and broadcasters involved in getting the message out quickly and respectfully. An in-depth report from the Guardian describes this process, along with its codename: London Bridge is down.

The Queen’s senior doctor Sir Huw Thomas oversaw her final hours, during which she was visited by close family and friends. He controlled access to the room where she was resting, and decided what information was to be made public and which details should remain private.

Whilst details of exactly what happened at Balmoral will likely never be known, and the Palace considers it an entirely private matter, at the moment the Queen died Charles will have become king and according to tradition his siblings will have kissed his hand and pledged allegiance to him.

Beyond the immediate family, the news of the Queen’s passing was in the hands of her private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt. The former diplomat received a second knighthood in 2014, in part for his role in planning Elizabeth II’s succession, and it was his duty to inform the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss.

In 1952, when Elizabeth’s father George VI passed away, news of his death was conveyed using the code “Hyde Park Corner,” to maintain discretion. For Elizabeth II, the phrase “London Bridge is down” will have been used to alert the PM and the heads of 15 other government where the Queen is head of state that she has died.

From there, the message will have been sent to the 36 other Commonwealth nations where she continues to serve as a symbolic figurehead. From this point on the message has been shared by broadcasters and news agencies around the world and details of the funeral arrangements will be made public. In a first, the news of the death was announced by the Royal Family on social media.

Operation Unicorn

Strictly Operation London Bridge covered many of the logistical elements of the days after the death if the Queen had died in London, however as she died in Scotland many of the next steps, including the journey of her mortal remains to London on the Royal Train, are governed by Operation Unicorn, which applies because she died in Scotland. The Unicorn is the official national animal of Scotland.

Once the death of Queen Elizabeth II was confirmed a number of immediate steps were taken, including the phone call to the Prime Minister and then to other heads of State. The news was released to the media and also announced on social media. Flags on official buildings in the UK were to be flying at half-mast within 10 minutes of the news being announced. They will remain at half-mast until 8 a.m. on the day after the funeral.

UK parliamentary duties have now been suspended for six days in order to prepare for the funeral.

Churches may toll their bells to mark the day of the Queen’s death, or wait until tomorrow to do so, given the late-ish hour of the announcement.

UK in mourning

Many businesses may close on Friday in mourning at the Queen’s death, although there is no legal requirement to do so. Government bodies will follow protocols drawn up by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport; the current minister, Michelle Donelan MP, was appointed only two days ago, on Tuesday, September 6, as part of the new cabinet appointed by incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Queen taken direct to London

Under Operation Unicorn the original plan was for the Queen’s body to be taken to Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, to lie in repose in the Palace of Holyrood, the Royal residence, before being carried up the Royal Mile to St Giles Cathedral.

However the Palace confirmed on Thursday evening that the Queen’s coffin would be taken directly to London, first to Buckingham Palace before being taken by a slow procession, accompanied by a military parade, to Westminster Hall, where the Queen will lie in state for four days, allowing members of the public to file past and pay their last respects.

State funeral in London

The main state funeral will then take place in Westminster Abbey, within two weeks, with the exact date to be confirmed by Buckingham Palace.

The Queen’s coffin will then make its final journey to St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, where she will be lowered into the Royal Vault before being interred in the King George VI memorial chapel.

The day of the funeral will be a public holiday, known as a bank holiday in the UK.

Prince Charles formally declared as successor

Charles is already King, with the crown passing to him at the instant of the Queen’s death, therefore there is no requirement to make the transfer official. However, an Accession Council will be convened, likely tomorrow Friday, made up of privy councillors, lords, the lord mayor of the city of London, and high commissioners of certain Commonwealth countries, to formally declare that Charles is the successor. The Council is held at St James’ Palace in London.

Charles will swear loyalty to Parliament and the Church of England at the Accession Council, and the Council will then draft a Proclamation of Accession, which will be read in public on Proclamation Day in a number of towns and cities around the country, including London, Edinburgh, Windsor and York. (Details of the Proclamation of Accession of Elizabeth II.)


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