Scheduled reopening of schools in NI postponed until at least March

The closure of schools in Northern Ireland has been extended until at least March.

Stormont ministers have backed a proposal from Education Minister Peter Weir that the current arrangements, which only allow vulnerable children and those of key workers to attend class, are continued to Friday March 5.

That would see many pupils return on Monday March 8.

However, not all pupils may be able to get back into classroom setting on that date and Mr Weir has raised the potential of a phased return, with children in key exam years returning first.

Any change in the arrangements around remote learning will only go ahead in March if the public health situation allows it and there are already doubts that the full reopening of schools could yet to delayed until past Easter.

Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir (Rebecca Black/PA)
Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir (Rebecca Black/PA)

Schools had been due to reopen after the mid-term break in the middle of February, however there had been widespread expectation that the date would be pushed back, given executive ministers had already decided to extend the region-wide lockdown to March 5.

Mr Weir also asked executive colleagues to support his call for special school teachers to be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations.

Ministers requested that further discussions take place between the Department of Health and Department of Education on the issue

Decisions vaccination prioritisation are ultimately made on a UK-wide basis by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

At Thursday’s executive meeting, ministers were told that the reproduction rate for new cases of Covid-19 is between 0.65 and 0.8.

The R rate for hospital admissions is between 0.8 and 0.9 while for ICU admissions it is between 0.95 and 1.15.

Ministers were also be told that several other main indicators of the virus are tracking downward.

However, the lag period between infection and hospital admissions means the numbers of ICU admissions continues to rise in Northern Ireland.

Coronavirus – Tue Dec 8, 2020
Coronavirus – Tue Dec 8, 2020

From Thursday, people aged 65-69 were able to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at seven regional centres in Northern Ireland.

The move marked the start of a twin-track approach aimed at accelerating the vaccination process in the region.

While people aged 70 and over will continue to receive AstraZeneca jabs at GP practices, the Pfizer vaccine is being offered to the 65-69 age group in the mass centres.

The centres were originally set up to vaccinate health care staff.

Those aged 65-69 can now book a slot for vaccination at a centre using an online portal.

The initiative has been developed to ensure a batch of Pfizer vaccination allocated to Northern Ireland does not go to waste.

People aged 70 or over will be informed by their GP when they can receive a jab.