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Coronavirus Northern Ireland: School closures extended until at least March as 13 deaths reported

  • Department of Health death toll reaches 1,792
  • 102,410 people tested positive
  • Dodds calls for extension of national support schemes

  • More than 5,000 book vaccine appointments
  • Schools to remain closed until at least March

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First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference at the ‘Hill of the O'Neill’ venue in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. Photos: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference at the ‘Hill of the O'Neill’ venue in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. Photos: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference.

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference.

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference in Dungannon.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference in Dungannon.

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference at the ‘Hill of the O'Neill’ venue in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference at the ‘Hill of the O'Neill’ venue in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

More than 5,000 people have booked online appointments since 65-69 age group given the green light. (Niall Carson/PA)

More than 5,000 people have booked online appointments since 65-69 age group given the green light. (Niall Carson/PA)

PA

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First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill pictured at the Executive news conference at the ‘Hill of the O'Neill’ venue in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. Photos: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

First Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed that the closure of schools in Northern Ireland will be extended until at least March.

At Thursday's executive meeting, Stormont ministers backed a proposal from Education Minister Peter Weir that the current arrangements, which only allow vulnerable children and those of key workers to attend class, will continue until Friday March 5.

That will see many pupils return on Monday March 8.

However, not all pupils may be able to get back into classroom setting on that date and Mr Weir has raised the potential of a phased return, with children in key exam years returning first.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Mrs Foster outlined the current situation with the virus which informs their decisions.

She said while the R number has fallen to between 0.65 and 0.8, hospitals are continuing to face incredible pressures and high numbers of Covid positive inpatients.

She said the number of Covid patients in intensive care is at its highest-ever level this week.

The R rate for hospital admissions is between 0.8 and 0.9 while for ICU admissions it is between 0.95 and 1.15.

However, the lag period between infection and hospital admissions means the numbers of ICU admissions continues to rise in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster said she understood the "digital divide" when it comes to homeschooling and the fact that "parents are no substitute for teachers".

"We very much understand the pressure that families are under at this time and I do declare an interest in that," she added.

The DUP leader added that she wanted to see children back in school "as quickly as we can".

"It is also important though that we give people a clear view of what is happening so we thought it was important to indicate today that we would not be back before 5 March in schools."

The executive will "work through this in a way that provides safety and security for children and staff", she added.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the length of school closures will be kept under review, adding that she also understood the "plight of many parents who find themselves in a difficult situation".

Ms O'Neill said hospital bed occupancy has dropped slightly but remains high, with 768 Covid-positive inpatients and 67 being cared for in intensive care.

She expressed concern at figures indicating that the B117 variant of the virus has become more common in Northern Ireland.

"This is very concerning as we know this strain of the virus is significantly more transmissible, and that reinforces the need for us all to do everything that we can to limit our contacts with other people," she said.

The news comes as Northern Ireland's Department of Health reported another 13 deaths and 592 new cases of coronavirus.

Latest figures show 11 deaths occurred in the 24 hours up to 10am on Thursday, while another two happened previously.

The death toll has risen to 1,792.

In terms of testing, 4,066 have contracted the virus in the past seven days, that is down from 11,500 the previous week.

In total over 769,000 people have been tested and 102,410 found positive.

Hospital bed occupancy is at 92%. There are 768 people in hospital with Covid and 67 are in intensive care.

There are 126 care homes dealing with an outbreak.

The latest figures come as a proposal to extend school closures is being debated by the Executive.

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Diane Dodds has called on the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CRJS) and Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) beyond April this year.

The Minister was speaking after figures published by HMRC revealed around 94,800 workers in Northern Ireland were furloughed using the CJRS as at December 31 last year - up from approximately 68,000 furloughs at October 31.

The figures also show that around 52,000 self-employed individuals in Northern Ireland had claimed the third SEISS grant up to the same date - around 55% of eligible self-employed workers in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Dodds said: "These figures demonstrate that too many workers are still reliant on this essential support. Therefore it is too early to consider stopping it."

Elsewhere more than 5,000 Covid vaccination appointments have been booked online since people aged between 65 and 69 were included in the roll out programme.

The Department of Health confirmed the figure on Thursday after launching the service the previous evening.

It has also emerged that an inability to roll over funds into the coming financial year has forced our health service to hand back £90m in the midst of the pandemic.

The Royal College of Surgeons in Northern Ireland, however, has warned additional funding is required to help tackle Northern Ireland’s waiting list crisis.

According to the most recent available figures, more than 200,000 people here had been waiting longer than a year for a first outpatient appointment or inpatient treatment in September last year.

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Belfast Telegraph


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