Northern Ireland children should return to classes in a “phased” manner to ensure the re-opening of schools is “sustainable”, the Chief Medical Officer has said.
Dr Michael McBride warned there remains a “high degree of uncertainty” over the affect the 50% more transmissable ‘Kent Variant’ of the virus could have on a number of scenarios including sending pupils back to class.
He said any decision on how local young people go back to school is for Stormont Ministers, but urged caution in the wake of Boris Johnson’s announcement that all young people in England will return on March 8.
The assertion also came against the backdrop of a political row after Arlene Foster said on Monday night there should be a faster return to school – despite the Executive announcing last Thursday that some primary school pupils would return to class on March 8, with some older post-primary school children returning on March 22.
Ministers did not commit to a date for the full return of the wider school population.
The First Minister said DUPEducation Minister Peter Weir wanted to pursue a similar strategy at last week’s Executive meeting but Stormont’s health advisers “didn’t think that that was the right way forward”.
“I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward, but I hope we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own personal experience that the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom,” she told the BBC.
Sinn Fein has accused Arlene Foster of making up policy on the hoof.
Today, Dr McBride told the media the “way to manage the uncertainty is to ensure a phased return to school, to ensure we can keep schools open in a sustainable way”.
Dr McBride cautioned that to move too quickly risked a “one step forward, one step back” scenario as restrictions are eased only to lead to a spike in cases and a subsequent re-imposition of restrictions.
He added: “I think the worst thing would be that we have children all back in school potentially and then see a very significant rise in community transmission, and that puts the whole thing back again.”
Dr McBride said that he had “not provided further advice to the Executive in the last number of days”.
He pointed out that the Prime Minister’s planned dates for the easing of restrictions is “subject to assessments”, adding that the NI Executive has “never been driven by dates” which has “stood the Executive in good stead”.
Dr McBride reiterated his view that some form of Covid-19 preventative measures – such as the wearing of face masks – would continue to be required for some time to come after other restrictions are lifted.
On schools, he said the evidence showed that children do play a role in household transmission of the virus.
He added: “That’s less likely for children under the age of 12, more likely for children over the age of 12, so the impact of returning primary schools is less than the impact of a return of children in secondary school.”
CMO Dr McBride warned that a rush out of lockdown could prompt the worst wave of Covid-19 yet.
He said: “There is a significant risk at this point in time if we move back from the current restrictions too quickly or too rapidly that we will see a resurgence in cases and that could result in a further wave of infection which could be even greater than the numbers we saw back in January.
“And that’s why it’s very important that the decisions by the Executive in terms of returning to a degree of normality are carefully taken, informed by all of the evidence and one step at a time.”
Dr McBride said he and other chief medical officers across the UK were basing their decisions on the same evidence.
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer said advice from Sage said schools returning will increase the R number of the virus and could potentially push it above 1.
Dr McBride insisted he and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty had not adopted contrary positions, and said any difference in approach was a consequence of elected ministers in UK regions opting for different strategies.
“I don’t think that there’s any difference of position in relation to the chief medical officers,” he said.
“I think that the evidence is clear and what we have is ministers making different decisions in different jurisdictions which, absolutely, they’re entitled to do, so I don’t think it would be accurate to present this as a chief medical officer of one jurisdiction saying one thing and a chief medical officer in another saying another – we provide advice and ministers make decisions.”
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