BORIS Johnson's Government has used new powers to direct Stormont to set up abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Brandon Lewis confirmed the widely-anticipated move in a written ministerial statement to Parliament.

Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution in the region had collapsed.

The SNP backed the legislation on the basis of the party being pro-choice but despite abortion being devolved. MPs Lisa Cameron and colleague Peter Grant voting against the move.

Individual health trusts are currently offering abortion services on an ad hoc basis in Northern Ireland, but the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services due to an ongoing impasse within the Executive.

In March, the Government intervened to hand the Northern Ireland Secretary new powers to direct the region's Department of Health to commission the services.

On Thursday, he formally took that step, directing the Department of Health and the First and deputy First Ministers to commission the services no later than March 31, 2020.

"This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction," said Lewis.

"I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare as set out in the 2020 Regulations."

The Northern Ireland Secretary issued the direction to the Department of Health, Minister of Health Robin Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

Lewis noted that abortion was a sensitive issue.

"I acknowledge and respect the deeply-held views that individuals hold on this issue," he said.

"However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld."

Lewis explained why the Government had created the new powers in relation to directing the commission of services.

He said: "We took this important step because a year after the 2020 Regulations were made, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland in all the circumstances allowed by the Regulations we made on March 31 2020. This remains the case today."

Lewis also directed that immediate support be provided to sustain the interim services currently being offered by the health trusts in Northern Ireland. He warned that those services were "at risk of collapse".

"Though I recognise the huge strain that Covid-19 has placed on healthcare in Northern Ireland, I remain extremely disappointed that full commissioning proposals have not yet been brought forward by the Department of Health and that the Executive has not an opportunity to discuss them," he said.

Lewis said it was for the Executive to find the funding necessary for the services from within the annual Treasury block grant or its own coffers.

"At the heart of this matter are the women and girls in Northern Ireland, who have been, and continue to be, denied the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK," he said.

"Parliament determined that this should be corrected and by exercising the power to direct, we will ensure that it is."

The charity Informing Choices NI (ICNI) has been providing a central access point for women seeking early medical abortions in Northern Ireland since last April.

ICNI's director of advocacy and policy Ruairi Rowan said the action from Brandon Lewis was "long overdue".

"Immediate action must now be taken to provide the funding necessary to prevent the collapse of the central access point," he said.

"Supporting the early medical abortion services that are already in place is essential.

"Informing Choices NI stand ready to work with the Department of Health to ensure the continued delivery of a regional high-quality information, support and referral service without further delay."

Naomi Connor, from pro choice group Alliance for Choice, also welcomed the move.

"Finally, long overdue abortion services can take their place within healthcare in Northern Ireland," she said.

"We remain hopeful that people will no longer have to endure the degradation of forced travel to England or navigating a precarious and limited service."