Coronavirus: Sinn Féin hits out after minister seeks British Army help in North

Fifteen more NI deaths confirmed as UUP leader seeks help distributing life-saving equipment

Sinn Féin has criticised Stormont's health minister Robin Swann for "unilaterally" requesting assistance from the British army to help deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said her party would “not rule out any measure necessary to save lives, protect the public and tackle the spread of coronavirus” but that the plan had not been approved by the Executive.

Mr Swann previously said he would take assistance from wherever he could get it, including from the British and Irish armies. It emerged on Saturday that the UUP minister had asked for military assistance in distributing life-saving equipment.

He has also requested help from the UK ministry of defence (MOD) in planning for the possibility of a Nightingale hospital at the former Maze-Long Kesh Prison site.

Mr Swann on Saturday told the BBC that he hoped his decision to seek assistance is not “considered divisive”. The move was welcomed by the SDLP and Alliance.

Sensitivities

Ms O’Neill said she had “raised the sensitivities of British military intervention directly with the British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis”.

“The health minister has 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.”

She said Sinn Féin was seeking “an urgent meeting with the health minister, on his failure to consult ministerial colleagues at Friday’s Executive meeting”.

“We will also be seeking meetings with the British Secretary of State, the Tanáiste and the PSNI given the seriousness of a decision to bring in the British military.”

In response to Ms O’Neill’s comments, a Department of Health spokeswoman said Mr Swann stated his intention to make a request for military assistance on April 3rd.

“That request was submitted yesterday and both the First and Deputy First Ministers were informed of the decision. The Health Minister is happy to discuss the matter if they require any further information,” she said.

In a statement, Mr Swann said he had “been clear that if I thought the UK military could be of assistance then I would not shy away from requesting it”.

“I believe we have now reached that stage. That is why this weekend I have now approved two decisions to activate the military aid to civil authorities (MACA) process. This follows further discussions I have had with the military this week and extensive engagement between my department and the ministry of defence.

“The MOD and our Armed Forces have a wealth of talent, expertise and resource that I believe could and should now be utilised to help our collective fight against Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.”

Death toll

With the number of virus related deaths in the North rising by 15 on Saturday to 107, SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood said he would be willing to “support anything that gets PPE and ventilators to where it needs to go”.

“Let’s stop playing politics and do whatever it takes to save lives,” he said in response to Mr Swann’s request.

Alliance Party leader and Stormont justice minister Naomi Long said she “could not agree more” with Mr Swann’s approach. “He has my and the Alliance Party’s full support for taking extraordinary measures to try to save people’s lives. All and any help is welcome at this critical time.”

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said he did not support any proposals that give the British military “a coordinating or security role to deal with the Covid-19 crisis”.

“Both the Tory government and the Executive’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has been shambolic from the beginning and this latest proposal to bring in the British army is further evidence of this,” he said.

“We are concerned about how this latest announcement may open the door to a security or military led approach to deal with a health pandemic.”