Health Minister Robin Swann has said Northern Ireland cannot purchase Covid-19 tests from a prominent Co Antrim healthcare diagnostic firm because it is tied into a UK-wide contract.
r Swann has been accused of dragging his feet in efforts to ensure there are adequate numbers of coronavirus tests available in Northern Ireland after his admission to the Stormont health committee.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan repeatedly asked Mr Swann to give details on what action he has taken since January to increase the number of Covid-19 tests available in Northern Ireland.
Health experts from around the world, including the World Health Organization, have stressed that testing as many people as possible is vital to reducing the spread of coronavirus, as well as ensuring frontline staff can remain at work.
When pressed to explain what steps he has taken to increase testing capability here, Mr Swann said Northern Ireland had received a small number of tests from Randox Laboratories, which has its headquarters in Antrim, earlier on in the pandemic.
He explained: "Randox is part of a UK-wide contract for testing, so they are tied into that UK-wide contract for testing which we benefit from.
"We will get a number of samples out of that, we got a small run from them at the very start, but now they are tied into that national contract - but we're in talks about how our labs can work with them to support their testing capability."
For nursing staff in particular, we had to stand on picket lines just a few short weeks ago to demand to be paid equally and fairly, and here we are again wondering why we are being treated differently Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing Northern Ireland
Speaking after the briefing, Mr Sheehan said: "This is very concerning, Randox tests are going to England, Scotland and Wales and then we're going to get the crumbs off the table.
"You can guarantee that we aren't going to be a priority for them."
Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said nurses here are "quite rightly asking what on earth is going on".
She continued: "It is quite unbelievable that tests that are being produced on our doorstep cannot be accessed for staff here who are beginning to feel, once again, like the poor relation to our counterparts in Scotland, England and Wales.
"For nursing staff in particular, we had to stand on picket lines just a few short weeks ago to demand to be paid equally and fairly, and here we are again wondering why we are being treated differently.
"It is, in our view, completely unacceptable that healthcare staff and patients in Northern Ireland will have to wait at the back of the queue to see if any of these supplies that were produced in Northern Ireland can be brought back. During a time of crisis - which is what this is - it is an enormous waste of time and resources."
Northern Ireland has a target to carry out 1,100 tests a day, however, only 449 people were tested for the virus over the 24-hour period between Wednesday and Thursday. Mr Swann said he remains committed to increasing the number of tests being carried out but there is a lack of trained staff and a global shortage of the reagent needed for the tests.