Unison says it does not object to Covid military support

Unison has said it does not object to receiving assistance from military personnel to help with the coronavirus pandemic, after an earlier statement questioning Stormont's decision to bring in the Army sparked a backlash.

Health Minister Robin Swann said on Wednesday he made the formal request for extra help last week when it was made known that a number of medical technicians were available.

More than 100 medically trained technicians are set to help in Northern Ireland.

There are currently 806 Covid-positive patients in hospital, 70 of whom are in intensive care units.

The UUP minister pointed out the Ministry of Defence has previously provided assistance, transporting seriously ill patients by air to England and giving logistical advice.

"I sincerely hope this will not be viewed as a divisive decision because I can assure it is not," he told an Executive press conference.

However, Unison questioned the decision, suggesting private healthcare workers should have been sourced instead.

A statement on its Facebook page said: "Unison was not consulted in relation to this issue. We have already engaged with the Chief Nursing Officer on this development, demanding to see information in relation to staffing pressures, which we understand to be the basis on which this request has been made.

"We will be writing formally to the Minister urgently seeking detailed reasons for this decision, including seeking information as to what other avenues of support have been sought, such as securing additional staffing from private sector healthcare providers."

Unison's statement was quickly met with criticism online, with a number of Unionist politicians calling for it to be withdrawn.

TUV Comber councillor Stephen Cooper said Unison "need to step back, recognise they have made a mistake and apologise" for their "shameful statement", while DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley called the statement "extremely disappointing" and "out of step with both Unison's own members and the wider public".

Following the reaction, Unison Northern Ireland's regional secretary Patricia McKeown said the earlier statement had been "misunderstood", clarifying Unison "has not objected to assistance from military personnel".

In a post on Facebook early on Thursday, Ms McKeown said: "Several hours ago, Unison posted information for members following reports in the media that military personnel are to be deployed into the health service to assist in responding to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

"We have seen the social media response to our earlier post and regrettably it has been misunderstood. We are happy to clarify and expand on it. To be absolutely clear Unison has not objected to assistance from military personnel.

"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.

"This is the worst public health crisis in living memory and it is right that all avenues of support for the health service and those working in it be explored, including assistance from military personnel. It is equally right that the workforce and their unions should be fully consulted in advance.

"Our request is for detailed information on how, when and where external personnel will be deployed and what the management and accountability structures will be for them. These are important questions."