The deployment of British military medical technicians and nursing assistants has created a blip on our pandemic monitoring screens.

It would seem that detachments are being sent to many areas but it is difficult to see how 100 can make much of a difference which would have to be weighed against any problems caused.

Some commentators suggest that the personnel will free up nurses for Red Flag cancer operations to be scheduled at the South West Acute Hospital. However, the fact that the team does not seem to contain any registered medical doctors and nurses is a limitation.

The Assembly Health Committee was briefed by the health and social care Trusts last Thursday with Jennifer Welsh  (Northern), Shane Devlin (Southern) and Cathy Jack (Belfast) represented.

Jennifer stated that they were redeploying theatre staff to double ICU beds and participate in the vaccination roll-out. Cathy Jack stated they had 420 Covid patients with 32 patients on CPAP (continuous oxygen pressure) in ICU, 30 in ICU (27 in Nightingale) and 3 in RICU.  Shane said that they were responding to pressures with beds being very low, 14/16 ICU with 759 staff absences. All said they had a forecasting model for surge plans. 

The Chair Colm Gildernew (SF), for the first time coming from his home (a sign of the serious turn in the rate of coronavirus spread) asked about vaccination in hospitals for over 80s and Cathy Jack explained the difficulties with intercurrent illness. 27,000 vaccinations have been given with 0.25% wastage but they would get to all as soon as possible.

Pam Cameron (DUP) asked about the second dose and ICU capacity. Shane felt the policy was clear to vaccinate as many as possible with 19,500 being vaccinated in the Southern Trust alone. Jennifer was happy that they would have ICU capacity with transfers. Cathy Jack was also confident and that the British military would help as Band 4 equivalents and she welcomed them.

Paula Bradshaw (Alliance) asked about risk of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) and Covid-19. Paula Bradshaw also asked about communications with downturn in cancer services.

Shane Devlin stated that 170 staff were needed to escalate ICU. The pandemic is emphasising Regional services and we may end up with less trusts. Paula Bradshaw asked about longstay nurses in Holywell not getting vaccination.

Cathy Jack emphasised the morale distress of staff not being able to give everyone the treatment they needed. Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy without cancer surgery was not optimal.

Órlaithí Flynn asked about psychological needs, incidence trends in younger people and contingency plans for transfers to the south. Gerry Carroll (PBP) was concerned about the capacity of the private sector and Johnathan Buckley (DUP about absenteeism. Pat Sheehan (SF) asked what input they had into the plans of the Health and Social Care Board.

Patricia Donnelly gave an overview of the vaccination roll-out which was proceeding in five phases and which she felt was going well. She said there might be commercial sensitivities about vaccine supply and this has proved to be so with the row between AstraZenica and the EU.

More when the Minister next attends. It should be noted that authoritative voices — including Gabriel Scally and Richard Horton —  are increasingly being raised as to whether the right decisions have been taken in the pandemic.