The HSE has enlisted the help of the Naval Service in setting up test centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway to cater for the growing number of people expected to present with Covid 19 symptoms over the coming days.
The Naval Service has responded by providing three of its ships as test centres with the LE Samuel Beckett due to become operational as a test centre for Dublin within days after mooring at Sir John Rogerson's Quay.
The LE William Butler Yeats is due to be used as a test centre for Galway operating from a berth in the docks while the LE Eithne will be used as a test centre in Cork after it berths at one of the city's quays.
It is understood that the LE Samuel Beckett was off Dublin and the LE William Butler Yeats was at sea off the west coast when contact was made by the HSE inquiring about the possibility of using naval service ships as test centres.
The Naval Service agreed to provide both vessels immediately but rather than send a third operational vessel to Cork, it was decided to send the LE Eithne, which has been tied up in Haulbowline since June due to staffing shortages.
It’s understood the LE Eithne is seen as particularly suitable for the Covid-19 testing operation as it has a spacious flight deck for helicopter landings and a hanger which could also accommodate HSE personnel.
Naval Service personnel are expected to sail the LE Eithne up from Haulbowline Naval Base over the next few days to Cork city where it is expected it will berth at Kennedy Quay which provides ample parking for those coming to be tested.
It is understood the Naval Service also looked at possibly berthing the LE Eithne on Horgan’s Quay but it felt that it might lead to traffic congestion as Horgan’s Quay serves as a major artery into the city centre.
Testing for Covid-19 will be carried out on all three vessels by HSE staff supported by Naval Service personnel who have experience of handling large numbers of people from rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
All three of the ships were involved in rescue missions in the Mediterranean where crew dealt with over 18,000 migrants that they rescued from small craft.
HSE officials believe “the considerable experience” garnered by Naval Service personnel during these rescue missions ensure they will be able to handle the numbers presenting for Covid-19 testing.
Flag Officer commanding the Naval Service, Commodore Mick Malone has already issued a message to Naval Service personnel on social media, advising that the public will look to the service for "assurance and strong leadership".
Meanwhile the Cork County Board of the GAA has offered its state of the art €96 million Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium to the HSE as a possible test centre.
Cork County Board of the GAA confirmed in a statement on its website that its 45,000 seater stadium in Blackrock in Cork “has been made available to the HSE, who are considering possible uses for the stadium”.
Cork County Board chairperson, Tracey Kennedy told The Irish Times that Cork GAA offered Páirc Uí Chaoimh before the HSE set up a drive in test centre for possible Covid-19 sufferers at Croke Park in Dublin.
“We were in touch with the HSE on Monday - we didn’t know that they were planning to use Croke Park - we just said to them that we had this facility if they wanted to use it so we are waiting for them to get back to us,” she said.
Ms Kennedy said it would be possible to set up a drive in test centre under either the south stand or the north stand as has happened in Croke Park as the tunnels under both are wide and high enough.
“Basically in Croke Park, those to be tested drive in one end under the stand - they have quite wide tunnels under the stand for buses to get through so it’s actually ideal and that’s what’s happening with cars driving through,” she said.
“There are a number of testing bays along the way and they are directed to an empty testing bay and they drive out the other end and that could happen under both our stands even though the south stand is better set up for it.”
Ms Kennedy said that Cork County Board felt that the association in Cork wanted to play its part in what is proving an unprecedented experience for Irish society and so decided to offer Páirc Uí Chaoimh to the HSE.
“Everybody wants to put their shoulder to the wheel at a time like this - it really is a national emergency and we looked at what we could do and we decided offering the HSE the use of the stadium was something practical.”
Former All-Ireland winning Cork hurling captain, Tomas Mulcahy praised the Cork County Board for its decision.
Ms Kennedy pointed out that GAA clubs around Cork such as Crosshaven, Kiskeam and Mitchelstown as well as others are already helping with club members offering to deliver groceries to the elderly and others at risk.
And she confirmed that Cork County Board executive had taken the decision at a video conference meeting on St Patrick’s Day to cancel the first round of its club championships in hurling and football to help curb the spread of Covid-19.
“We also called off the first round of our county championships from a safety point of view as well as we didn’t want people feeling that maybe they should be trying to get together to train if there was a chance of matches in April.”