Keeping schools open in Northern Ireland not a political decision, says minister

Stormont’s education minister has insisted his stance on keeping schools open is not political and is in line with the expert medical advice.

Peter Weir was challenged during a sitting of the Assembly as to why schools, colleges and childcare facilities in Northern Ireland remain open, when in the Irish Republic they were all closed as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the Stormont authorities still holding off on announcing closures – a move they say will be required eventually – several schools have already shut their doors over Covid-19 fears, including 10 schools for children with special needs in Belfast.

St Dominic’s Grammar School, a large mainstream school for girls in Belfast, has closed to pupils to facilitate a deep clean after one of its students tested positive for Covid-19.

A legal challenge against Mr Weir’s stance on closures, taken by a Co Armagh mother whose daughter has an underlying health condition, is due to be heard at the High Court in Belfast on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Queen’s University in Belfast has suspended face-to-face lectures in response to the coronavirus, with all lecture material instead to be delivered remotely.

All field trips have also been scrapped, though laboratory sessions, tutorials and seminars will continue as normal, the university announced.

Mr Weir told the Assembly it was still not time to order widespread school closures.

He insisted the issue was not “political”, insisting there were different circumstances south of the border.

“Now is not the right time for mass school closures,” he said

The minister said if the medical advice changed and recommended Northern Ireland adopted the same tactics as the Irish Republic then he would follow that advice.

He said the current advice from chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride, the Public Health Agency and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies remains the same – that schools should not close.

“Let me make it absolutely clear – this is not a political issue,” Mr Weir told MLAs.

“If it means from that point of view that Northern Ireland, either in terms of timing or actions, takes a different position from either the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain – if that was on the basis of what the medical advice is, I will follow that advice because my only consideration – this is global tragedy that is coming, we do not know whose family this will hit – and at the end of this, I want to be absolutely certain that we have done all that we can to take the right steps to minimise the tragedies that are facing different families from whatever community.

“That’s why I will continue to follow the scientific advice throughout.”

Mr Weir, who has established a Covid-19 Education Planning Group to co-ordinate efforts across the sector, issued new guidance to schools on Monday.

“I understand the implications that school closures would have on a large number of parents being removed from their current jobs and instead staying at home to look after their children,” he said.

“Some of these will be doctors, nurses, police officers, paramedics and firefighters, the very people we need at this key moment in time to complete critical contingency planning for the weeks and months ahead.”

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