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Coronavirus: Keeping schools open is correct call, former Health Ministers say

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Jim Wells

Jim Wells

PA

Michael McGimpsey

Michael McGimpsey

Jim Wells

Two former Health Ministers have backed the decision not to close Northern Ireland's schools, saying the country's top medical officers would have provided the best possible advice to the Executive on the matter.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced on Thursday that all schools, colleges and childcare centres in the Republic will close for two weeks.

However, Boris Johnson insisted there was no need to close UK schools as the scientific advice was that it could "do more harm than good".

Former Health Ministers Michael McGimpsey and Jim Wells both agreed that the decision to close schools should be made by Northern Ireland's chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride.

However, they did concede that as the coronavirus pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation, the medical advice could change within 24 hours.

Former South Belfast MLA Mr McGimpsey, who was the Minister of Health from 2007 to 2011, believes Northern Ireland's schools will close "eventually", but added that there is currently no evidence to suggest that closing them now will stop the spread of Covid-19.

"The UK response is very much a science-based response because the Cobra committee is advised by the scientific advisory group, public health, the four jurisdictions and chief medical officers," explained the UUP politician.

"They come to a view - but the notion that Boris Johnson decided this, I would say, isn't accurate. It is decided by a consensus of the scientists through a discussion.

"As far as closing schools is concerned, the key question is: are children more vulnerable in school or out of it? There is no evidence to suggest that they are.

"In fact, children are amongst the least vulnerable among members of society.

"Secondly, in keeping the schools open, does that in any way accelerate the spread of the virus? There is no evidence for that as well.

"Looking at that, you would say that the balance is that you keep the schools open. They will all close eventually, but what we're always trying to do is delay the onset of the peak and squash it down to allow our health service to be in a position to cope with it."

He added that the downside of closing schools is that thousands of parents will be forced to take annual leave to look after their children, with many of those in the health profession, therefore adding to an already strained service.

Mr McGimpsey also said it was "terrible" that the Irish Government only gave Stormont a 10-minute warning ahead of Mr Varadkar's announcement on Friday.

"He is doing what he thinks is right by the Irish people, but I do think it's unfortunate the way it all came through," he concluded.

Meanwhile, the DUP's South Down MLA Mr Wells, who had the party whip withdrawn from him in 2018, said that politicians must follow the advice of the health professionals.

"I have the highest respect for Dr Michael McBride," stated Mr Wells, who was Health Minister from 2014 to 2015. "I worked with him for 12 years, and for both him and Robin Swann, I think the entire community is wishing them nothing but the best as they have to make very, very difficult and complex decisions.

"The decision must be what is best for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people of the entire island of Ireland.

"As the situation evolves, we may introduce controls which are even more significant than the Irish Republic, but it has to be based on sound evidence.

"I would not be surprised that within 24 hours time the medical evidence given [on Thursday] by the Prime Minister is completely overturned because of new information."

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