Trade union Unison faced an angry backlash over a Facebook post questioning the need for military intervention at Northern Ireland hospitals and demanding information on staffing pressures.
owever, its regional secretary Patricia McKeown said the post had been "misunderstood" saying the union was only seeking clarity on the matter and asking "important questions". She said they were not objecting to the call for assistance to the military.
"It is our duty as a trade union to protect our members and the service. It is the responsibility of those running the service to explore all options and disclose the information in a timely manner," she said.
We were immediately concerned that a request for aid of this nature indicates a crisis. Patricia McKeown
Michelle O’Neill and Robin Swann were united as they delivered the message that the use of Army medics in hospitals must not be used as a political football.
Around 100 medics - from all branches of the military - are to be deployed across Northern Ireland in a bid to ease pressure on hospitals. Department of Health statistics have shown hospitals exceeding capacity over recent weeks. The most recent figures show four hospitals are over capacity, overall occupancy is currently at 96% and 130 people are awaiting admission.
The deputy First Minister said Sinn Fein’s priority is to “save lives”, adding that “we do not rule out any measures”.
Ms McKeown said Unison has publicly supported the efforts of the health minister to "confront the pandemic in all too often difficult political circumstances".
"In our experience the deployment of military personnel into public services is a decision taken as a last resort.
"We were immediately concerned that a request for aid of this nature indicates a crisis that is moving out of control. This is why it is important that we know in advance what options are being explored.
"We signposted our intention to ask a number of questions on this development, given that disappointingly there had not been consultation in advance."
She added: "We have never underestimated the severe pressure all health and social services workers are under at this time. We have been publicly and repeatedly at the forefront of highlighting that pressure from the outset of the pandemic at every opportunity."
In the original Facebook post Unison said it had not been consulted, and it would be writing to the health minister "demanding" information on staffing pressures and “seeking information as to what other avenues of support have been sought”.
"We have also asked for clarity in relation to the hospitals at which military personnel could be deployed," the post said.
"There must be full transparency in relation to staff pressures across our hospitals."
It added: "We will be demanding clarity in relation to the roles and responsibilities that military personnel may take."
There was an almost immediate angry backlash. Within two hours the post had over 3,000 comments with thousands more reactions.
Almost all appeared to be "disgusted" or angry and pointed out that the pressure facing the health system should be obvious.
A lengthy scroll through the responses did not produce a comment that was in favour of the sentiment.
Many said they were now considering their membership. And some, who said they worked in the health service, said they welcomed support from any quarter.
Many pointed out the post immediately before the comment was highlighting the pressures faced by health service staff.
Others highlighted the words of Michelle O'Neill in supporting the move.
DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley expressed his disappointment.
"This statement from Unison is extremely disappointing and is out of step with both Unison's own members and the wider public. I have already been contacted by health service staff making clear that this does not represent their views," he said.
"People will not understand why Unison are demanding information on staffing pressures at the current time. Every one of us knows the difficulties they face and we are all incredibly grateful for their immense contribution. We all too should support assistance from any quarter which can help relieve that pressure and ensure the most effective treatment possible for our patients.
"This must be a united effort, and we should be focusing on the medical skills and expertise brought by the additional staff rather than the fact they happen to be members of our armed forces."