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Three Naval Service vessels to assist with Covid-19 testing

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Tanaiste Simon Coveney (Brian Lawless/PA)

Tanaiste Simon Coveney (Brian Lawless/PA)

Tanaiste Simon Coveney (Brian Lawless/PA)

THREE Naval Service vessels will assist with Covid-19 testing from today as the Defence Forces are also considering the use of non-essential army facilities to support the Health Service Executive (HSE).

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that Ireland is effectively doubling the size of the health service - and will use army-style field hospitals if required in the worst case scenario.

The patrol ships deployed to Dublin, Cork and Galway now join with GAA facilities including Croke Park and Pairc Uí Chaoimh in support of the massive expansion of virus testing across Ireland.

There are now 35 test centres nationwide with a further 20 under consideration.

Pairc Uí Chaoimh will, at peak operations, handle 1,000 Covid-19 tests per day.

Around 40,000 people are now waiting on Covid-19 testing - with an average waiting time of four to five days.

A number of non-essential army facilities have also been identified for potential use if the Government and HSE require greater isolation capacity in dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic.

These are in Dublin, Cork and Kildare.

However, they will only be required if the HSE premises, nursing homes and offices already earmarked prove incapable of meeting the expected isolation demands posed by the surge in Covid-19 detections.

LE Samuel Beckett has been assigned to Dublin, LE William Butler Yeats has been sent to Galway and LE Eithne has been deployed to Cork's upper docks.

The three vessels will act as support bases for onshore testing centres - with Covid-19 testing staff supported by electricity supplies, accommodation, food preparation, water supplies and even equipment storage on the berthed vessels.

However, testing will not take place on the vessels.

Instead, testing by referral will take place in large army tents erected onshore beside the berthed vessels.

LE Eithne is the fleet flagship but had been out of service for the past six months and was docked at Haulbowline Naval Base.

Further navy deployments to other ports in support of HSE viral testing will be considered with Waterford, Limerick (Foynes) and Dundalk/Drogheda being examined.

HSE boss Paul Reid said healthcare workers were very grateful for the support provided by the Defence Forces and other emergency services.

He again appealed to people to observe strict social-distancing controls to ease the pressure on testing.

HSE Public Health Specialist Dr Sarah Doyle said it was vital that anyone who had symptoms consistent with Covid-19 go into self-isolation.

"If you are waiting for a test, I completely understand that people are worried and concerned. If you are at home and if you have symptoms, you need to self-isolate."

The Defence Forces are now playing a major role in supporting the emergency services as they deal with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Army cadets have been trained to assist with Covid-19 call centre duties to support HSE staff.

Defence Forces medical teams are also on standby to assist their hospital colleagues if required.

However, there is, as yet, no indication the Defence Forces will mobilise the near 2,000 members of the part-time Army Reserve.

However, personnel on UNIFIL duties in the Lebanon have been briefed that their tour of duty may have to be extended because of the escalating virus crisis.

The 115th Infantry Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hurley, deployed to the Lebanon before Christmas as part of Ireland's longstanding commitment to United Nations work in Lebanon.

Some troops had been expected to start rotating back to Ireland over the coming weeks having completed their six month tours of duty.

However, such rotations home are set to be suspended - and personnel in the Lebanon have been briefed that they may be asked to serve for a further three months until the Covid-19 situation eases.

One Defence Forces source indicated that this was both to avoid the potential spread of Covid-19 to the UNIFIL operations area and to minimise disruption as the Defence Forces prepares for deployment to aid the civil power in Ireland.

Israel has already warned that anyone entering its jurisdiction - whether foreign national or Israeli citizen - will have to be quarantined for 14 days to ensure they are free of Covid-19.

Online Editors