Fresh call for military assistance as Covid pressures continue to mount on NI hospitals

The military has been asked to send help to Northern Ireland’s beleaguered health service again, it has emerged.

Saturday, 21st August 2021, 7:20 am
Queues for Covid-19 vaccines at the vaccine centre in the SSE Arena in Belfast. Picture date: Friday August 20, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit: Rebecca Black/PA Wire

The call for help from the Stormont health department comes amid escalating pressures in intensive care units, with the number of coronavirus patients now approaching the peak levels recorded during the first wave of the pandemic.

The number of people testing positive for the virus shows no signs of slowing either, with yesterday’s total of nearly 2,400 the highest recorded in Northern Ireland.

DUP MLA Pam Cameron has backed the call for military aid, but stressed the “best defence” against the hospital pressures is vaccination.

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Handout photo issued by Press Eye of Health Minister Robin Swann during a press conference in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast.

Mrs Cameron, the vice chair of the health committee at Stormont, said: “The skills and experience of our armed forces medics on our hospital wards have proven valuable at previous stages of the pandemic. Given the tangible and sustained increase in occupied ICU beds over recent weeks, there can be no doubting the grounds or justification for their redeployment in Northern Ireland.”

She added: “Ultimately, the best defence against stretched capacity in our health service is to prevent hospital admissions and serious illness with Covid-19. The vaccination programme provides a roadmap to normality not just for our economy or social settings but in our wards and operating theatres.”

The plea comes as mass vaccination centres across Northern Ireland reopen to people of all age groups for first doses today and tomorrow, without the need for an appointment, in a move dubbed the ‘big jab weekend’ to boost uptake.

Some 2,397 confirmed cases of the virus were notified on Friday, along with nine deaths of patients who had previously tested positive

On the same day, there were 388 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 47 in intensive care.

The region is in another wave of the virus, and Wednesday saw the highest number of Covid-19 related deaths since February.

Mr Swann said: “The latest figures on our Covid-19 dashboard are deeply concerning, both in terms of deaths and new cases.

“The Delta variant is taking its toll on Northern Ireland and it is vital that as many of our citizens as possible are vaccinated.”

In a statement welcoming the request for military aid, Ms Cameron said: “I am fully supportive of this move. We must continue to exhaust every avenue to ensure our hospital wards and ICUs remain fully operational and are adequately staffed during what remains an extremely challenging period for those on the frontline. This will be critical to ensuring that every Covid-19 patient continues to receive the best possible care whilst supporting an irreversible restoration of vital routine health services, including elective surgery.”

She added: “The DUP team at Westminster will therefore be pressing the Government to respond constructively to any formal requests for assistance to boost staff numbers.”

If approved by military bosses, it won’t be the first time defence forces have stepped in to assist the health service.

Back in January, when the pandemic was at its height with the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals here briefly surpassing 1,000, more than 100 medically trained personnel were deployed directly to hospital wards.

And last year military assistance was given for logistical tasks as the pandemic first began to take hold.

The latest request comes amid a continued surge in mostly unvaccinated patients arriving at Northern Ireland hospitals.