Stormont ministers stick with phased plan for school return

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First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

By David Young, PA

Stormont ministers have stuck with their phased plan for returning children to school despite DUP concerns that it is too slow.

While the main stages of the plan remain in place, officials are to engage on one controversial aspect that requires some primary school children to revert back to home learning just two weeks after they return to the classroom.

The phased plan was discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the Executive but no formal proposal to change measures agreed last week was tabled by DUP Education Minister Peter Weir.

It also emerged after the meeting that publication of the Executive’s wider lockdown exit strategy, which was due on Monday, may now not be made public until later next week as ministers are still working to finalise the details.

Mr Weir and DUP First Minister Arlene Foster have voiced concern that school children in Northern Ireland are returning to school more slowly than those in the rest of the UK and in the Irish Republic.

They had also questioned why Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride was advocating the more gradual approach in the region if he was working on the same scientific advice given to other CMOs in the UK.

On Thursday, Mrs Foster stressed that she was seeking to secure consensus on the issue and made clear and she and her party had “full confidence” in Dr McBride, whom she said had worked “tirelessly” through the pandemic to provide the Executive with impartial advice.

The First Minister said the whole Executive was in agreement that a return to classes was the main priority.

“I think where there are slight disagreements in the Executive, and slight emphasis differences, is around the speed of which we try and get those young people back to school and that’s what we’re discussing at the moment,” she said.

“And I think it’s important that we continue to have that discussion because it’s right that we continuously review the evidence before us.”

Under the Executive’s plan, P1 to P3 primary school children will return to school on March 8.

On March 22, secondary school children in key exam years – years 12-14 – will return.

On that same date, the P1-P3 cohort is due to revert to home learning for one week ahead of the Easter holidays – to mitigate the impact on infection rates of the secondary school cohort’s return.

Mrs Foster said officials from the departments of health and education were going to examine that aspect of the plan.

“I think we all recognise that given there is an extra day off with St Patrick’s Day (March 17) and given other data and what is happening generally that we would like to say those children may be able to stay at school for that week, so it’s not a huge change, I recognise that, but it’s just to try and help parents around that,” she said.

No date has so far been given for the return of the wider school population.

Mrs Foster acknowledged there was a need for clarity for those year groups.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill made clear the main reopening plan remained as it was.

“I think it’s right and appropriate that the Executive’s priority is to get children back into school safely,” she said.

“But that’s the very point – it has to be safe and it has to be sustainable, and we don’t want an on/off switch.

“I think it’s really important to give that clarity and certainty. So you ask the question about what’s changed, nothing’s changed – it is the position as was outlined last week.

“But obviously we continue to discuss everything and to make sure that everybody’s joined up.

“But to put to bed any confusion, the Executive’s position is as it was set out last week.”

Ms O’Neill also told a post-executive press conference that Northern Ireland’s pathway out of lockdown strategy may not be published on Monday as planned.

She said work is set to continue on the plan across the weekend.

“It was our desire to publish a document on Monday and if we can we will,” she said.

“But if it takes until Tuesday, then so be it, as long as we get it right. I think that is more important.”

She the administration would produce a gradual and sustainable plan that everyone could work to.

“None of us want another lockdown, we need to move forward in the right way, take time to look at the effects and take that into consideration every step of the way,” Ms O’Neill said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster

Mrs Foster defended an approach that is set to see the plan based on data and not structured around certain dates.

“What we will do is we will keep to the standard of reviewing the regulations every three weeks, as we have done throughout this year, and every time we look at things we will hope that we can move further because, as I’ve often said, this is about proportionality and it’s making sure that we don’t keep these restrictions in place for a minute longer than we feel that we have to or are advised to by our medical advisers,” she said.

“Because it is so important that we move towards freedom and that people are allowed to go back to a way of life which frankly has been missing from Northern Ireland and from across the world for an entire year now.”

A further five Covid-19-linked deaths were announced by Stormont’s Department of Health on Thursday, along with another 281 confirmed cases of the virus.

On Thursday morning, there were 341 Covid-positive patients in hospital, of whom 44 were in intensive care.

 

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