By Diarmuid Pepper
While the government dithers over when to close schools and colleges in response to coronavirus pandemic, some local principals have taken matters into their own hands and announced the immediate closure of their schools to pupils.
At the time of writing, from today (Monday) St. Joseph’s High School, St. Patrick’s PS and Gaelscoil Phádraig Naofa in Crossmaglen are closed; as well as St. Patrick’s PS in Cullyhanna, St. Brigid’s PS, Glassdrummond, St. Mary’s PS, Mullaghbawn, Our Lady’s Grammar and St. Mary’s High School in Newry.
Regarding her school, St. Joseph’s HS principal Marie Miller made the announcement in an online statement late on Saturday evening. She said: “Pupils will be allowed to stay at home while staff continue in their preparations for remote learning, in the event of the school closing due to COVID 19.
“I appreciate that this is very short notice and study facilities will be available in school for any pupils who come in. The health and well being of pupils, staff and families is paramount at this very challenging time.”
Our Lady’s principal Fiona McAlinden made a similar call. In a post on Facebook, she said: “In light of the current coronavirus crisis, we have now decided to take Monday as a staff day and allow pupils to stay at home. This will free up time for staff to prepare and trial additional resources for remote learning in the event of a school closure.”
In a message on the school’s website, principal of St. Patrick’s PS, Cullyhanna, Paul Quinn announced his school is closed until Thursday adding that he hopes he will be “given direction to avoid opening”.
“I appreciate that this is very short notice but in these unique circumstances we believe this is the correct course of action,” he said. “The health and well being of pupils, staff and families is paramount at this very challenging time. At present, school is scheduled to reopen on Thursday 19th March. My hope is that we will be given direction to avoid opening but parents will be informed of intended action on Wednesday or before.”
Despite mounting pressure on the NI Executive to make the call and close in line with governmental policy in the Republic of Ireland, at the time of writing, no such directive has been forthcoming.
On Thursday An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that all schools, colleges, childcare facilities and cultural institutions are in lockdown until March 29th in the Republic due to coronavirus fears.
The Irish Government has also advised that all indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, and all outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people, should be cancelled. And in a further step on Sunday, Mr Varadkar said he may seek enforcement powers to close pubs and clubs after images circling on social media showed bars and nightclubs packed with people in a clear breach of guidelines.
Agreement, however, on how to proceed north of the border has led to a rift developing between First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill with the latter insisting on Friday that schools should shut “immediately”.
Mrs Foster disagreed saying a decision will be dictated by “the science” while acknowledging that schools will close “at some point in the future”.
Speaking at Stormont on Friday, Ms O’Neill said: “People are making up their own minds in terms of cancellations of large events. People are asking a very logical question: ‘Why can my children not go to school but yet a couple of fields over, those children are going to school?’
“I believe with this situation, we need to err on the side of caution. It’s very clear in my mind that we need to see one approach and one message that’s consistent across this island so the public is not even more confused.”
First Minister Arlene Foster said she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the call from Michelle O’Neill, and added that her job “is to follow the science”.
On Saturday, the Primate of All-Ireland Eamon Martin also called for the schools to be closed. In a letter to the DUP Education Minister Peter Weir, Archbishop Martin said that the St Patrick’s Day weekend provided a “clear window” for parents and schools to make contingency plans ahead of school closures. But Peter Weir said that shutting down the schools now would be “counterproductive”.
The call to close was also echoed by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and SDLP Leader Colm Eastwood.
However, at a special meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh on Saturday, Mrs Foster confirmed that schools would close at some point in the future, adding that when it does happen, they will be closed for at least 16 weeks.
On his way into the meeting in Armagh, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for action, commenting that the virus “did not recognise borders”.
But after the meeting, there was still a huge chasm between Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster. Sinn Féin and the SDLP both support the immediate closure of schools, but the DUP and UUP say it is not yet the time to do so.
Ms O’Neill says a consistent approach is needed, adding: “The fact that you can have two schools a mile apart and one school’s open and one school’s closed that’s a very confusing picture and a very confusing message for the public.”
Meanwhile, Ms Foster said that the schools will close “when we are advised on the medical evidence”. She said there isn’t a difference between the strategies the north and south is taking, but that is it “about the timing of when the interventions take place”.
Many European countries are closing schools and the UK is increasingly seen as an outlier in its decision to keep schools open; the British government is expected to introduce emergency laws this week banning mass gatherings.
Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd was particularly critical of the stance of the British government, commenting on Twitter: “Do you honestly believe the rest of Europe is wrong and this balloon (Prime Minister Boris Johnson) and his ilk are right. If you are not angry it’s time to get angry, we are on the brink!”
And with international travel being increasingly further restricted, from tonight (Monday), both the UK and Ireland have been added to a travel ban into the United States while countries across the globe have either banned inward travel or placed quarantine restrictions on those entering the country.
As of writing, there are 129 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Republic, where there has been two confirmed deaths, both of which involved people with an underlying medical condition. There are also six citizens in intensive care units as a result of the virus. There are 34 confirmed cases in the north.
Health Minister Robin Swann has confirmed that healthcare services will be “significantly curtailed” in order to divert resources towards coronavirus patients.
Affected services include non-urgent outpatient appointments, day cases, inpatient and diagnostic work, and these curtailments will be phased in over the coming days.
GPs access will also be limited due to COVID-19 and many services will be restricted.
Currently, only non-urgent outpatients, day care, inpatient and diagnostic services will be reduced. Suspect cancer cases and other urgent care will continue, unless advised by the applicable Trust.
Members of the public are advised to stay at home for seven days if they have a fever and or a new and persistent cough, which runs contrary to the advice in the Republic wherein the public is advised to stay at home for two weeks.
However, if symptoms worsen during the seven-day period of home isolation, or people are no better after seven days, they are advised to seek medical advice by telephone.
The Southern Health and Social Care Trust added that people who exhibit mild symptoms do not need to be tested; these people are advised to stay at home and to not contact or visit a GP surgery, pharmacy, or Emergency Department.
Additionally, if you have an underlying health condition and develop symptoms the advice is to let your GP know, and to only call 999 if it’s an emergency.
The public is also advised that venues for services may change as Trusts try to manage and centralise services. Trusts are also planning for greater use of telephone contact and other digital technology, where appropriate.
Mr Swann said he wanted to be “totally frank with the public about the scale of the challenge”.
He added: “Health services across the globe are coming under severe pressure; ours is no different. This is undoubtedly the biggest public health challenge for at least a generation. It will require a society-wide response, not only caring for those who fall ill but also providing support to anyone impacted by self-isolation and any social distancing measures that are put in place in the weeks ahead.”
All HSC Trusts will also be focusing on ensuring patients who are medically well are promptly discharged from hospital to ensure hospital beds are available for any increase in admissions.
Minister Swann apologised to people who will have appointments and treatments postponed but said “unfortunately, this is unavoidable”.
Meanwhile, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has sought to assure the public that there are plans in place to deal with any disruption to services and said her top priority is ensuring her Department is doing so that the most vulnerable people get access to support.
Ms Hargey said: “I am determined to ensure that those most in need – low income families, those with caring responsibilities, people with disabilities and our elderly, continue to receive the support they are entitled to.”
The Minister also announced that urgent amendment will be made to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit (UC) regulations.
She said: “The changes introduced today include the temporary removal of the three day waiting period for Statutory Sick Pay and the seven waiting days for people making a new style ESA claim.
“People who need to self-isolate for medical reasons to protect others will be treated as being ill. They do not need to go to a GP as there is a seven day allowance for self-declaration.”
With the unprecedented situation changing on an almost hourly basis, it is expected that stringent measures to help counteract the spread of the disease will be introduced in the coming days. And we should expect to experience similar public lockdowns as those ordered across the EU as we, along with the rest of the world, attempt to navigate the unchartered waters of this global coronavirus pandemic.