Coronavirus: Temporary mortuary to be set up at Northern Ireland military site

26 March 2020, 18:37 | Updated: 26 March 2020, 19:17

A temporary mortuary is to be created at a British military site in Belfast to cope with an anticipated spike in coronavirus deaths.

The Northern Ireland Department of Justice is leasing two vehicle storage hangars at the Kinnegar Logistics Base, which is due to be decommissioned in 2022 and is no longer used as an army barracks.

Military vehicles were moved out of the hangars on Thursday to make way for civilian contractors to create what will be called the Northern Ireland Temporary Resting Place if required.

Justice minister Naomi Long said: "We are on a fast-moving and frankly troubling terrain and we have to plan accordingly, both in individual departments and across the executive.

"Preparing for the future and looking at worst-case scenarios, while trying to mitigate against those worst-case scenarios, is now our focus.

"As part of that work, we are taking precautions to prepare for the risk that the normal burial arrangements are not sufficient.

"We will do all we can to ensure dignity for the deceased and their family. We will work with all of those involved to enable as many people as possible to be buried or cremated in the usual way.

"However, we must also safeguard public health. In the event that the virus hits Northern Ireland very hard, then we have seen elsewhere in the world that this gives rise to challenges which we are working to meet.

"We currently have some additional space in temporary resting places for the deceased over and above the normal arrangements.

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"We are actively seeking to increase that capacity and are working closely with a range of organisations to find the best solution.

"As part of that work, a request has been submitted for the use of the soon-to-be decommissioned Kinnegar site near Belfast to be used as the NI Temporary Resting Place, in the event that it is needed.

"The priority will always be to ensure that there is respect and dignity for the deceased and their families."

At present, 10 people have died in Northern Ireland with COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.

But officials are preparing for many more deaths, potentially even thousands in a worst-case scenario.

It is understood the temporary mortuary will have sufficient capacity.

The Kinnegar Logistics Base was once a thriving hub of activity, employing up to 1,000 civilian staff supporting the army at the height of the Troubles.

Situated on the shores of Belfast Lough, near Holywood, there are few other places that would allow the same level of security and privacy for the deceased.

The site is now in the process of being decommissioned and sold off - a plan that was announced in 2016 and is due to conclude within the next two years.

It is no longer used as an army barracks and has civilian security in place - important factors in deciding to use the facility to store the bodies of the deceased in a country where there are historic sensitivities about the role of the British armed forces.

Part of the site is currently used by the Ministry of Defence to repair vehicles.