A senior Naval Service officer has said it was “extremely sobering, serious and grim” to be told by HSE officials that his ship could become a floating morgue.
Commander Caoimhín Mac Unfraidh has spoken for the first time about what senior HSE officials told him when his ship, LÉ Eithne, was ordered to tie-up in Cork City on March 20 to aid in the fight against Covid-19.
He said when they arrived in Cork, health chiefs suggested mortuaries in the region would be overrun with Covid-19 victims and they'd have to store bodies onboard. Plans were put in place to put refrigerated containers on the ship's flight decks to store the corpses.
Within the first two weeks of arriving both he and the crew, including volunteers from the Naval Service Reserve, thought that would become a reality as the number of cases and deaths started to surge.
“The reaction of everybody onboard was they were just willing to do whatever they had to. There was no hesitation and no doubt. We didn't see ourselves as the centre of the (frontline workers') story. We were far more worried for the doctors and nurses. It was towards the end of April that we started to relax, but we didn't relax our precautions."
Commander Mac Unfraidh had himself volunteered for the mission. He'd signalled some weeks earlier to his bosses that he intended to resign his commission but when Covid-19 crisis struck he decided to stay and do his bit, just like the other crew members.
The ship was also to act as a back-up headquarters for HSE Covid-19 operations if their regional headquarters at the Erinville Hospital was contaminated by the virus. The LÉ Eithne was taken off the HSE support operation yesterday.
Commander Mac Unfraidh said the Naval Service learnt about protecting themselves from potentially dangerous infections while rescuing 18,000 migrants in the Mediterranean. The HSE used naval personnel to help train health workers, gardaí and port staff in the correct use of PPE and used navy ships as Covid-19 testing centres.