Army medics administered an estimated 100,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine in Northern Ireland, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.
Some 100 combat medical technicians (CMTs) worked at the vaccination centre at the SSE Arena in Belfast in recent months.
As the men and women prepared to leave at the weekend, Health Minister Robin Swann sent a video message of thanks for their work.
“You have been a welcome addition and provided much-needed relief and support at a time when our workforce faced huge challenges,” he said.
“Before you leave I want to put on record our thanks and my thanks for your efforts in supporting Northern Ireland’s response to Covid-19 and the help that you have supplied by doing what you have done, so thank you.”
It was the latest contribution by the armed forces in the pandemic in Northern Ireland in what has been described as the first public-facing, intimate assistance to the civil authorities since the end of Operation Banner in 2007.
Stormont made a series of military aid to the civil authorities (MACA) requests from the start of the pandemic.
Sinn Fein, which had previously been reluctant to ask for assistance from the armed forces, backed the requests.
This resulted in the creation of a huge emergency mortuary, storage for personal protective equipment, four patients airlifted to hospital in Leicester for specialist treatment, logistics advice for the setting-up of mass vaccination centres at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald and 110 CMTs supporting staff at three hospitals during the second surge in January-February 2021.
More than 500 personnel from units based in Northern Ireland and across Great Britain, made up of both reserves and regulars from all three services, were involved in the effort.
The Northern Ireland Temporary Resting Place at Kinnegar was never formally activated but is described as having had the capacity to cope with worst-case scenario in the most respectful and dignified manner.
The four critically-ill patients, who were transferred to Leicester Glenfield hospital for extra corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment in the spring/summer of 2020, all survived with positive outcomes.
Later that year the military assessment team (MAT) which advised the Department of Health on the mass vaccination centre at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, also helped with the planning to react to the second wave of the pandemic from December 2020 to March 2021.
Meanwhile, 15 reservists from Northern Ireland travelled to Liverpool to help with test, track and trace.
Air Marshal Sean Reynolds, the RAF’s senior representative in Northern Ireland, told the PA news agency it had been a gradual build-up for the response of the armed forces, starting with warehouses and real estate.
He described the vaccination team at the SSE Arena as the largest contribution, adding further assistance will be given in future if needed.
“That’s part of being in the armed forces and military, that notion of service – we’re here to serve and we’re here to do what we’re asked to do,” he said.
“People get involved with us to make a difference and the fact that we’ve been able to make a difference when we’ve been asked to help is hugely satisfying, and also preventing people from getting sick.
“Where we have been asked to help then, with a mixture of regulars and reservists, we have placed people with specialist skills and knowledge into those areas.
“For the moment that is all we have been asked to do, but if we’re asked to contribute and help in the future, then if we can, I’m sure we will.”
Corporal Paul Grimmitt, 28 from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and Lance Corporal Leah Clayton-Smith, 22, from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, were among the CMTs who worked at the SSE vaccination centre.
Ms Clayton-Smith said her two months at the SSE was her first visit to Northern Ireland and it had been very rewarding.
She previously helped at the Royal London hospital in a Covid ward as a nursing assistant.
“Delivering the vaccination, everyone was really excited about it, so it was nice to be a part of their patient journey,” she said.
“Some people came in and were really nervous, others were excited to get back to normal life.”
Mr Grimmitt added: “It’s been great working alongside the NHS, helping out and getting as many vaccinations in the public as we can.
“We had some nervous people, but more than happy to get the vaccine and over the moon when they do.”