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Coronavirus: Arlene Foster tells concerned school principals to contact department and says it's too soon to cancel large events in Northern Ireland

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First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene has said any school principals concerned about upcoming trips should get in contact with the Department of Education.

She was responding to a call from MLA Justin McNulty that the Executive must issue a blanket ban on school trips planned for countries hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

Mrs Foster hit back at claims from Mr McNulty that there had been a lack of "clear and unambiguous" guidance from education authorities to parents and schools with trips booked to Italy in the coming weeks.

The SDLP representative said he has been contacted in recent days by worried parents - some of whom have paid £1,000 per child for the trips - and who are unhappy letting their children fly to Italy, where the death toll hit 79 on Tuesday.

Last week a number of schools here were forced to send pupils home who had recently participated in ski trips.

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Dr Michael McBride (centre), Dr Miriam McCarthy and Dr Gerry Waldron at the Public Health Agency headquarters

Dr Michael McBride (centre), Dr Miriam McCarthy and Dr Gerry Waldron at the Public Health Agency headquarters

Dr Michael McBride (centre), Dr Miriam McCarthy and Dr Gerry Waldron at the Public Health Agency headquarters

Mrs Foster said the chief medical officer Michael McBride had spoken with some principals last week. She said it was important to be "led by the science" and for people to listen carefully to experts on the matter.

Mrs Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill announced on Tuesday they have scaled back their St Patrick's Day trip to the US in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill cancelled plans for the New York leg of their itinerary next week but still intend to meet political and business leaders in Washington.

A second case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday, while two new cases were confirmed in Scotland on Wednesday.

"Our top priority as the leaders of the executive is to ensure that we are in a good position in relation to Covid-19 and the coronavirus and that we have all the planning in place," Arlene Foster said.

"We took the decision over the weekend that we need to be here for emergency meetings that are taking place on Monday next week."

The DUP leader said it was still too soon to make any decisions about large scale events in Northern Ireland.

"It's important we are prepared in Northern Ireland for what may happen," she said.

"We will be looking at all the plans for large scale events over this period of time. As the chief medical officer said, we should be led by the science... he is of the opinion is too soon to make a decision in relation to these matters."

The Executive Office has established its own civil contingencies operations room in response to the outbreak, she said

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The UK government revealed its action plan on Tuesday. It's thought up to a fifth of the workforce may be off sick at the peak of the epidemic.

Mrs Foster added: "This is not just a matter for the health department, it's a matter for the whole of government. Planning has been stepped up to ensure we have a coordinated response from all of our sectors.

"We are leading on work on essential services and making sure we have key sectors ready to deal with what may come to fruition."

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