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Coronavirus: Call to ban all Northern Ireland school trips to regions hit by outbreak

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A commuter wears a face mask while taking a bus in Westminster, London, yesterday

A commuter wears a face mask while taking a bus in Westminster, London, yesterday

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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

School officials check the temperatures of students before they enter a school in Tangerang, Indonesia

School officials check the temperatures of students before they enter a school in Tangerang, Indonesia

AFP via Getty Images

Justin McNulty

Justin McNulty

A commuter wears a face mask while taking a bus in Westminster, London, yesterday

The Executive must issue a blanket ban on school trips planned for countries hit by the coronavirus, an MLA has insisted.

Justin McNulty issued the call after he criticised a lack of "clear and unambiguous" guidance from education authorities to parents and schools facing trips to Italy in coming weeks.

"As the coronavirus spreads across Europe and has now breached our shores, it is crucial that we take measured and precautionary steps to protect our citizens," he said.

"School leaders are crying out for definitive guidance and for support."

The SDLP man said he has been contacted in recent days by worried parents - some of whom have paid £1,000 per child for the school trips - who are unhappy letting their children fly to Italy, where the death toll had reached 52 by Monday.

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

Public concern is growing, with stores reporting supplies of hand sanitiser running out rapidly.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's chief medical officer has warned that developing a vaccine to combat coronavirus remains at least a year away.

Parents are justifiably concerned about whether or not it is advisable to allow their children to travel abroad to countries and regions already impacted by coronavirus SDLP MLA Justin McNulty

To date there is one confirmed case of the virus here, with the two cases also reported in the Republic. The total for the UK recorded yesterday was 51.

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Justin McNulty

Justin McNulty

Justin McNulty

Mr McNulty insisted that to keep the case numbers as low as possible, a blanket ban on school trips to affected areas abroad was crucial to stop the disease's spread.

He also called on the Executive to reimburse parents for the cost of cancelled school trips, insisting it would be more cost-effective than escalating costs for our health service in dealing with patients.

"Parents are justifiably concerned about whether or not it is advisable to allow their children to travel abroad to countries and regions already impacted by coronavirus," he said.

He complained that schools are not receiving effective advice on the issue, insisting the authorities, including the Department of Education, are "passing the buck" by leaving it to school principals to make the call.

"Everyone is passing the buck and offering schools advice that amounts to little more than 'wash your hands'. Or better still, the advice has been: 'It's up to you, you make the decision'," he said.

Branding it unacceptable, he urged the department to "step up and step in" and cancel school ski trips "without delay" given this could be a "matter of life and death".

Viruses respect no boundaries and no borders Dr Michael McBride

The Department of Education was contacted for a comment, however there was no response at the time of going to press.

Yesterday chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said Northern Ireland remains in the "containment phase".

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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

At a Public Health Agency media briefing in Belfast he stressed that the primary aim for health authorities is to "flatten" the peak transmission period.

During the routine update it was also revealed:

  • Northern Ireland has around 100 critical care beds ready for patients.
  • Non-urgent health services such as outpatient clinics may be postponed during "peak infection".
  • Patients with the virus will be treated in a single room where a self-contained air system will be in place.
  • A total of 151 people here have been tested so far for the virus.

He explained that initial data shows 99% of infected patients will make a full recovery and 95% will suffer mild to moderate symptoms, which will not require hospital treatment.

He stressed that all stakeholders are working with relevant agencies in the UK and the Republic.

"Viruses respect no boundaries and no borders," he said.

Dr McBride also insisted that there is currently no need to cancel large scale events or mass gatherings as a result of the worldwide outbreak.

By contrast, in the Republic one high-profile sporting event - Saturday's Six Nations rugby game against Italy - has been cancelled.

Dr Miriam McCarthy, a director at the Health and Social Care Board, said plans are under way on this side of the border to expand the number of critical care beds available.

"We are working to ensure that we protect the critical care capacity for the sickest people," she explained.

She stressed that the public should still follow current guidelines if they are displaying symptoms of the virus and practice good hand hygiene.

In response, pharmacies in Belfast have reported that customers are "going mad" in a bid to keep themselves from contracting the virus.

Technician Chloe Brown of Strandburn Pharmacy in east Belfast said yesterday that supplies of hand sanitiser were running low, while other businesses in the city were "completely sold out".

"I would say about 90% of people coming in here are asking for hand sanitiser, people we've never even seen before, and we're quite close with the community here," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

Such is the high demand for the products, consumer warnings have been issued after online auction sites like eBay urged sellers not to advertise hand sanitiser at inflated prices.

One listing on the site was selling hand gel at £59.99 per bottle.

It has also been reported that major UK supermarkets are likely to have plans to continue stocking shelves if a sudden escalation of coronavirus leads to panic buying.

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