Education Department threatened with legal action over coronavirus

The education department in Northern Ireland received four letters threatening judicial review over the Covid-19 crisis, a lawyer said.

Two involved keeping schools open, another focused on testing and another surrounded court closures.

The lawyer said: “So we have currently a significant amount of resources being consumed in responding to pre-action correspondence … on matters that are plainly questions of policy.”

He requested the court to signal that this is “not proper territory for use of judicial review”.

“These are matters of high policy, they are highly complex, we are reacting to an evolving situation,” he added.

The legal challenge to the decision by Northern Ireland’s education minister to not close schools was adjourned and later rendered obsolete by the announcement that classes will shut from Monday.

The mother of a Co Armagh schoolgirl who suffers from severe asthma had sought to judicially review Mr Weir’s stance.

Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan said: “This is a difficult area, obviously this is an issue which has engaged the public interest I understand, but there is an issue here about the role of the courts vs the role of policymakers, politicians who are clearly making decisions on the basis of expert evidence in a very difficult area.”

Earlier, minister Peter Weir predicted closures would last until the end of August.

Appearing before Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday, Mr Weir emphasised that it is a “fluid situation” in “unprecedented times”.

He insisted he does not have a “doctrinaire position” and wants to be “guided entirely by the scientific and medical evidence”.

Permanent secretary Derek Baker described coronavirus as “now the single issue” in the department.

He said staff are “withdrawing from all non-essential work” to focus on the impact of the virus.