An Army base in Co Down is set to be used as a temporary mortuary for victims of Covid-19.

Stormont’s Department of Justice has approached the Ministry of Defence with a request to use a large building at the Kinnegar base in Holywood if current body storage arrangements exceed capacity.

It is part of the department’s planning for the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities are seeking to expand capacity for storage of bodies in Northern Ireland amid concerns the funeral system will be overwhelmed.

Officials are working to increase the current capacity of 280 bodies due to fears of a backlog of burials and cremations.

The Kinnegar site has already been earmarked for closure, with plans to sell it by 2022.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said the priority was to ensure there was respect and dignity for the deceased and their families.

“We are on a fast moving and frankly troubling terrain, and we have to plan accordingly, both in individual departments and across the Executive,” she said.

“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. 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.”

Earlier in the week, DoJ officials told a Stormont committee there was likely to come a point where it would be impossible to adhere to the current practice of holding funerals within three days of a death.

As well as an increase in death rate due to the disease, sickness among funeral directors and council staff is anticipated to put added pressure on the system.