Sinn Féin has criticised a decision by the Stormont Health Minister to formally request assistance from the British Army to help deal with the coronavirus crisis.

Robin Swann said he has asked the military to assist with the distribution of lifesaving equipment and in the planning for a temporary emergency hospital.

The minister said he believes the stage has been reached where army help is needed.

However, Sinn Fein said there is no need for military help at this time

Sinn Féin has said it was seeking urgent meetings with the Irish and British governments.

Codenamed 'Operation Banner', the British Army's military campaign in Northern Ireland formally ended 13 years ago.

The only soldiers on the streets now are bomb disposal experts deployed to assist the police.

There are a handful of British army bases, but the soldiers in them are deployed overseas and not on the streets of Northern Ireland.

But Mr Swann has now activated what is called the 'Military Aid to Civil Authorities' process to request British Army assistance in the battle against Covid-19.

In a statement, he said he believes the army’s skills and logistical expertise can assist with the distribution of lifesaving equipment to ensure that all hospitals have the materials and resources they need.

The health minister also asked the Ministry of Defence to assist with the possible development of an emergency hospital on the former site of the Maze prison in Co Antrim.

Mr Swann said his number one priority is to save lives and protect staff on the frontline and he hopes the move is not considered divisive.

"I said at the start of this pandemic that I would turn down no reasonable offer or source of support," he added.

"I’ve been clear that if I thought the UK military could be of assistance then I would not shy away from requesting it. I believe we have now reached that stage."

Last month, Mr Swann told the Stormont Assembly he would be prepared to asked the Irish Defence Forces for help if it was needed and they were in a position to provide it.

The SDLP has said it will support anything that ensures that life saving equipment is delivered to where it is needed.

Sinn Féin has strongly criticised the minister.

In a statement, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, said Mr Swann had acted unilaterally and without consulting any of his Stormont Executive colleagues before making the request.

She also pointed out that she has raised the "community sensitivities" created by the issue with the Irish and British governments.

The Deputy First Minister was at pains to ensure people that the number one priority is to save lives and that Sinn Fein will do anything that is necessary to do so.

However, she believes Robin Swann had acted prematurely and had failed to discuss his decision with his Stormont Executive colleagues.

"Sinn Fein has made it clear we will not rule out any measure necessary to save lives, protect the public and tackle the spread of Coronavirus," she told RTE News.

"But there are local solutions to get us through the pinch points where we may need extra help if that is to move ventilators around, if that is to do any of those things, then there are many many people here.

"Lorry drivers who are unemployed right now have been wanting to play their part, the freight companies, all have been offering their services, the PSNI themselves actually could offer to help us also.

"I don't believe that the British Army assistance is necessary at this point. I believe that all of our modelling indicates that we are coping, albeit in the most challenging of circumstances."

Representatives of haulage companies and lorry drivers in Northern Ireland have said they could help make any necessary deliveries.

The Freight Transport Association pointed out that hundreds of HGV lorries are currently parked up with their drivers out of work.

In a post on Twitter, its policy manager Seamus Leheny said: "Surely these operators should also be considered as part of any logistical plans to support local government and health."

Those sentiments were echoed in a post by Manufacturing NI.

In a Tweet, it said: "Important that there’s a plan, management but there’s also lots of HGV drivers sitting idle on furlough and would be very willing to help."

The request for military aid must first be assessed by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis MP before passing it on to the Ministry of Defence.

The British government must be satisfied that all possible alternatives have bee exhausted.