Health authorities on both sides of the Irish border are involved in the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China, a Stormont minister has said.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced that the region’s powersharing executive had joined forces with health chiefs in the Irish Republic to source the in-demand equipment for healthcare workers on the front line of the pandemic.
He said it was a “significant order” that would satisfy supply needs in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this week, Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris said the state would be spending 225 million euro on new stocks of PPE this year.
Aer Lingus planes are already scheduled to fly to China to bring back a huge consignment. The first flight will leave Dublin on Saturday.
At Friday’s Stormont press briefing on the coronavirus crisis, Mr Murphy declined to confirm if the PPE earmarked for Northern Ireland would be on the first flight or was part of a later delivery.
The minister said Northern Ireland would also receive additional supplies through UK-wide procurement efforts to meet the soaring high demand for PPE.
Mr Murphy said it was important that there was an all-island approach to the issue as well.
“I can assure you it is a very significant order and it should satisfy our supply demands,” he said.
Mr Murphy said securing supply was a “crucial” issue.
“We’ve today agreed that joint order with Dublin, there is procurement going on with the British system as well, but I think to be prudent we want to ensure that if the crisis that is coming our way becomes more severe in Britain and those supply lines across the Irish Sea start to dry up, that we have our own supplies.
“This is a joint effort with the Dublin Government, the order has been placed, so I can’t give certainty in terms of the flights, but we obviously want to get it here as quickly as possible.
“We also want to ensure that where we do have – and we do have supplies of PPE – that that gets to frontline workers as quickly as they need it and that we give them certainty that if and when that is used, then we have a sufficient back-up supply coming.”
Medics who are dealing with the unfolding crisis continued to raise concerns about the standard and supply of PPE in Northern Ireland.
Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the current situation was “not good enough”.
“Even today we’re hearing reports of by people in the front line not having access to PPE,” she said.
“That’s not good enough and that needs to be resolved and needs to be resolved now and we will make sure we do everything we can to make sure that that is the case.”
Earlier on Friday, Health Minister Robin Swann said “concrete action” was being taken over the region’s stocks.
“Demand for PPE will inevitably intensify in the days and weeks ahead,” he said.
“We are therefore taking every conceivable step to keep building up our stocks to meet this demand. It is very welcome news that key global supply chains are starting to reopen.
“We will pursue every feasible supply route, both local and international, to enhance our supplies.”
On Friday, a nurse said she is treating patients with a “knot in her stomach” amid fears of infection.
She urged the Department of Health to intervene to ensure workers are better protected from Covid-19.
The A&E nurse, who spoke anonymously to the BBC, claimed medics were having to wear paper surgical masks rather than the seal-proof FFP3 masks they had been promised.
The nurse said she feels fearful as she goes about her work treating coronavirus patients.
“We feel exposed,” she said.
“I had been with a lady all day, working with bodily fluids, working in very close contact, and I had just got this fluid shield mask with an apron and gloves, and I honestly felt I had a knot in my stomach for most of the day in fear that, if she did come back positive, that was the only PPE I had on.”
She added: “I have yet to speak to a healthcare worker on the front line that says, ‘Yeah, our PPE is really good, I feel really well protected’ – because we don’t.”