EXCL: Ministers warned Northern Ireland hard border ‘could risk lives’ by holding up emergency vehicles
A post-Brexit hard border in Northern Ireland could put lives at risk, ministers have been warned, as new figures revealed that hundreds of emergency vehicles have crossed the frontier in the past two years.
New data released by Northern Ireland’s emergency services shows that 182 ambulances and 270 fire engines crossed into the Republic during 2016/17 in response to urgent call-outs.
But the Government has been warned that any extra border checks could increase response times, delaying vital help to people in need.
Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman Alistair Carmichael said any new delays could be a matter of “life and death”.
He told PoliticsHome: “These call-outs are likely in many cases to be matters of critical importance, life or death potentially. Every second counts.”
The Lib Dem frontbencher urged Theresa May to “get back round the table” with EU leaders and “and deliver a deal which works for Northern Ireland and the border communities on both sides in order to ensure there is no collateral damage to her calamitous Brexit".
Brexit talks have stalled over the last few weeks as negotiators have failed to reach a compromise on future trade arrangements and the Northern Irish border.
The Prime Minister travelled to Brussels last week in an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock.
But there was little sign of progress, with talks instead focusing on extending the Brexit transition period in a bid to avoid the EU's 'backstop' option for Northern Ireland kicking in.
Pressed on how emergency service crossings might be affected by a no-deal Brexit, a spokesperson for the UK's Department for Exiting the European Union said: "In the unlikely event of no deal, we have been clear that we will do everything in our power to avoid a hard border, and that we must continue to respect our unique relationship with Ireland and honour the Belfast agreement."
They added: "The proposals we have put forward would allow both sides to meet our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in full, and we are working hard to get a deal on that basis.
“The Prime Minister has been clear that a negotiated deal is the best outcome for the UK and EU, and that it is achievable."
A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Department of Health meanwhile told PoliticsHome: “Maintaining cross border services, including ambulance service collaboration, is one of the Department’s priorities in this process.
“However, it would be premature to form a view on the impact of EU Exit on the provision of healthcare at this time.
“The Department will continue to monitor the outcome of the UK Government’s EU Exit negotiations and will discuss any potential impact on cross-border acute services with the Department of Health (RoI) through our existing joint oversight arrangements.”