Coronavirus: Eleven more deaths confirmed in Northern Ireland

Foster rejects O’Neill’s criticism of British military help being sought during crisis

Eleven more people have died in Northern Ireland from coronavirus, the Public Health Agency (PHA) reported on Sunday, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths to 118.

An additional 89 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the North on Sunday, taking the total number of cases to 1,806 with 12,199 tests having been carried out.

The figures were published as DUP First Minister Arlene Foster rejected Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill's criticism of the British army being "unilaterally" requested to assist in dealing with the crisis in the North.

Ms O'Neill issued a statement on Saturday saying the Ulster Unionist Party health Minister Robin Swann had "unilaterally and without consultation with Executive colleagues requested limited assistance from the British army".

The Sinn Féin politician noted the “sensitivities” of such a moved and said her party “has made it clear we will not rule out any measure necessary to save lives, protect the public and tackle the spread of coronavirus”.

However, she indicated that such a decision should have been a collective one for the Executive to take rather than for a single Minister.

"No proposal to use British military personnel in the North for roles normally performed by civilians has come before the Executive," said Ms O'Neill. "I have raised the sensitivities of British military intervention directly with the British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. "

Exhaust all options

She said Mr Swann had “a responsibility to exhaust all options, including the use of other blue light public services and civilian contractors, to ensure that ventilators and life saving equipment are moved swiftly to where they are needed most”.

Mr Swann told the BBC he had made a formal request to the British army for help in distributing lifesaving equipment. He also requested help from the British Ministry of Defence in planning for a Nightingale hospital at the site of the former Maze prison near Lisburn.

“I believe the army’s skills and logistical expertise could assist with the redistribution of essential lifesaving equipment across Northern Ireland to ensure that all hospitals have the materials and resources required to fully enact their surge plans,” he said, adding that he hoped his decision was not “considered divisive”.

Ms Foster issued a restrained rebuff to Ms O’Neill’s criticism of the move.

“Northern Ireland has been working together on tackling this awful disease. We need to keep at it,” she said on Twitter.

“When your loved one is lying in hospital, who built the ward will be the last thought on their mind. Let’s build the capacity we need. We fully support the army being used to build necessary beds.”

A majority of the North’s politican parties, including the nationalist SDLP, agreed with Mr Swann’s move.

Do the uncomfortable

SDLP policing spokeswoman Dolores Kelly said "there would be no role for military personnel in security matters but that in the middle of a public health emergency, political leaders must be prepared to do the uncomfortable to save lives".

“No one wants to see soldiers on our streets,” the MLA said. “The memory of that time is still raw for many people and many communities across Northern Ireland. But we are in the middle of a global public health emergency. That means all of our options have to be on the table and political leaders must be prepared to do the uncomfortable to save lives.”

The Alliance party and the Traditional Unionist Voice party also supported Mr Swann's action although People Before Profit West Belfast MLA Gerry Carroll expressed concern this "latest announcement may open the door to a security or military led approach to deal with a health pandemic".