The HSE considered allowing nurses to give last rites to patients dying from Covid-19 as emergency preparations were made for a surge in deaths, internal documents reveal.
Minutes of a meeting of the Covid-19 Mass Fatalities Expert Group show the HSE considered the move after a discussion with its Chaplaincy Council on the need to avoid contact in clinical settings.
The records, released under Freedom of Information and marked "confidential", state that the HSE and the Chaplaincy Council discussed "the possibility of nurses to be decreed to give last rites in some circumstances".
The meeting took place on March 26 when plans were being made to deal with an increase in mortality. At the time, there were 19 recorded deaths from the virus and 1,819 confirmed cases.
The Covid-19 Mass Fatalities Expert Group, convened on March 19, is made up of representatives from the HSE, Department of Health, the State Pathologist, the Department of Defence and other specialists with first-hand experience and knowledge regarding mass fatality responses. The group is tasked with the planning and oversight of the overall management of excess mortality arising from Covid-19.
At the March 19 meeting outlining the difficulty in estimating the number of Irish deaths as a result of the pandemic, it was noted that "the working assumption is that approximately 2pc of confirmed cases in Ireland will result in death".
Plans were set in train by the group to extend mortuary capacity, including building two temporary holding facilities, allowing additional capacity for 900 bodies.
The group also asked Kildare County Council to compile information on overall burial capacity.
At a separate meeting on March 24, the Covid 19 Mortality National Co-ordination Group was established to draw up a Covid-19 mortality plan. A national oversight group, including representation from the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, was tasked with coordinating the implementation of the plan.
At a meeting of the group on April 30, minutes show that "the most significant lesson learned" had been the number of fatalities arising in community settings, including nursing homes, at around 60pc of total fatalities.
The minutes state that "it was initially predicted that the majority of fatalities (circa 80pc) would arise in hospital settings".
Concerns were also raised at the meeting about the increasing numbers of mourners attending funerals.
Another issue of concern was "the emergence of 'honour guards' for the deceased as they are being removed from nursing homes".
It was also noted that "some sporting organisations are also engaging in socially distant lining of roads" but there was a question if the manner in which they were assembling and breaking up was consistent with the advice.
In a statement, the HSE said it "worked in close collaboration with chaplains and a range of faiths during the Covid-19 pandemic".
Despite the issue being discussed at the high-level meeting of the Covid-19 Mass Fatalities Expert Group, "nursing staff were not trained in the practice of giving last rites", it added.