Stephen McNeice
Stephen McNeice

14.33 14 Mar 2020


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Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster has said she believes schools there will be closed for "at least 16 weeks" when the decision is made by the Executive to shut them over the coronavirus.

She said students there are likely to be off school "for a very long time", with plans being drawn up for state exams and any additional care requirements during the closures.

While schools in the Republic have closed until the end of the month, a similar move has not yet been made in the North.

A difference in approach has emerged between Sinn Féin, who want them closed now, and the DUP.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill today said there is a "divergence" of opinion in the Executive about when the closures should happen.

Ms O'Neill was speaking following a meeting of the North South ministerial council, with ministers from the North and Republic meeting to discuss the island-wide approach to COVID-19.

Speaking at a press conference following the meeting, Ms O'Neill said: "“I think where there’s a divergence in the Executive… I think all parties accept that schools will close… it’s a matter of when.

"In my opinion, schools should close now: I think we need to be consistent across this island.

“I think the fact that you can have two schools a mile apart, with one school open and one school closed… that’s a very confusing picture and message for the public.

“We have to make a decision: people want clarity.”

First Minister Arlene Foster, meanwhile, said they're following advice from their health experts and those in the UK.

She said: “We will be taking that action when it is the right thing to do in terms of what is happening in Northern Ireland.

“There are two different jurisdictions on this island and we may do things in terms of timing differently… but the tools are all the same.”

She also told reporters: "Children will be at home for quite a considerable period of time.

"When we do close the schools, they will close - I would say - for at least 16 weeks, and then of course you're into the summer period... they will be off school for a very long time."

'Differences of approach'

Speaking at the same press conference, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney said there has been good cooperation between the two jurisdictions and that will continue.

Simon Coveney said the two parts of the island are "networked together" in terms of factors such as the supply chain.

He observed: “We’re all living on this island together, and we are confronted with a challenge that many people couldn’t have dreamt of until it happened."

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach said: "There will be differences of approach over the coming weeks and months… but the differences that exist are mostly around timing.

“There will be strong coordination and lots of information sharing."

Speaking about the challenges more generally, he said: “COVID-19 can’t be stop, but it can’t be slowed in its track.

“The only slight concern I have at the moment is that there might be a degree of complacency slipping in… that because of the actions that were taken in terms of closing schools and banning mass gatherings that people think everything is going to be OK. That’s not the case.

“I’d like to restate the public health advice… there’s no dispute about any of this."

On Thursday, Mr Varadkar announced from Washington that schools would close and that the Government was advising that mass gatherings be cancelled.

Today, he defended his approach to the announcement - saying the situation had changed rapidly overnight.

The Taoiseach said he never intended to make such an announcement during a hastily-arranged address in the US, but that he wanted the Irish people to hear the news directly from him after the decision was taken.

Main image: File photo of Arlene Foster. Picture by: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

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