The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that 10 requests for military assistance were made by Northern Ireland agencies in the last eight months – prior to the news that Army medics are to assist local hospitals battling Covid-19.
Seven of the requests were linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, the MoD said.
Four of the military aid to the civil authorities (MACA) requests related to patients being transferred to a hospital in England, while three were linked to the use of military bases to store personal protection equipment (PPE).
Patients were evacuated from Northern Ireland to Leicester in April, May and twice in June, the MoD told the Sunday Life.
The defence ministry was unable to immediately provide details on whether the four were Covid-19 patients, or if they were suffering from some other condition and space was not available due to the pandemic.
The requests to store PPE were made by the PSNI and the Department of Health.
All the requests were made between April 27 last year and January 12.
Details of the many requests for military assistance follow the announcements medics attached to armed forces will be deployed in Northern Ireland to help amid increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients.
“The Ministry of Defence will be supporting a request from Northern Ireland’s Department of Health for military support to be provided to frontline healthcare staff,” a MoD spokesperson said.
“110 Defence medics will be embedded into Health and Social Care Trusts, working under the supervision of doctors and nurses to help relieve the pressure on the health services.“
The request made by the Department of Health has received broad support, including from the Sinn Fein leadership.
Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said her party’s priority has “always been to save lives” and would “never rule out anything that actually supports the health service”.
However, party colleague, West Belfast MLA Pat Sheehan, told Stormont’s health committee on Thursday this his only concern was that the military would “get in the way of the real professionals”.
“These British soldiers are coming in to help out. It’s no real concern of mine, “ Mr Sheehan said. “My only concern is that they don’t get in the way of the real professionals who are doing the work to save lives.”
He added: “This is the slamming the dead cat down on the table to deflect attention away from the inadequacies in the health department at the minute.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said he was “disappointed and also disgusted” by Mr Sheehan’s comments.
“These are professionals. These are actually military-grade technicians that we’re bringing in. It’s a skillset that wasn’t previously offered to us as a skillset.”
He added: “It wouldn’t be the language that would be reflective of his party leadership in regards to the assistance that we’re actually receiving from the Army.”
He said the majority of health workers would welcome the assistance of the military medics because “this is a tough period of time that we’re entering into in the health service”. It would have been an “abdication of responsibility” not to call on the military for help, he said.
According to the MoD, the support of the military “demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to meet the needs of the whole of the United Kingdom as we continue to tackle the pandemic.”
“The medics will be joining the Health and Social Care Trusts, they will be filling health care assistant roles, including tasks such as the recording of patient observations and general ward duties, within ICU’s and other low dependency ICU clearing wards.
“The roles undertaken by military personnel will be decided by the hospitals according to where resources are needed the most.”