Northern Ireland’s top doctor has reiterated the need for a phased return of schools to stop a further deadly Covid-19 wave.
Dr Michael McBride, the chief medical officer, has said he cannot rule out the possibility of another lockdown, including further school closures, if measures currently in place are lifted too quickly.
His comments come after an apparent U-turn by the First Minister, Arlene Foster, over the reopening of schools and a claim by the Education Minister that there is a “strong case” for the full return of schools on March 8.
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Dr McBride said: “We have certainly made very significant progress in terms of suppressing community transmission of the virus and the population of Northern Ireland can be congratulated on that.
“Increasingly that is contributed to by the vaccine, but the majority of that impact is because of what people are doing, it’s the steps that people have taken to protect themselves, to protect others and to suppress this virus that has had the most impact to date in reducing cases, reducing numbers of people going into hospital, reducing the number of people in intensive care and deaths.
“And it’s really important that we stick with that over the next number of weeks and months.
“There is a significant risk at this point in time, if we move back from the current restrictions too quickly or too rapidly, that we will see a resurgence in cases and that could result in a further wave of infection that could be even greater than the numbers we saw back in January.
“That’s why it’s very important that the decision by the Executive, in terms of returning to a degree of normality are carefully taken, informed by all of the evidence and one step at a time.
“And that one step at a time will allow us to assess the impact on transmission and the 'R' number and then will inform the Executive’s decision as to whether it is safe to move into the next step.”
Dr McBride said “there is no doubt” that huge damage has been caused to children by the closure of schools.
However, he stressed that a return to school will result in an increase in community transmission, although he said this is not necessarily linked to children being back in the classroom.
Instead, he said it is likely to be as a result of different behaviour of parents.
He also said transmission of children under the age of 12 is less than those in secondary school but he referred again to the fact that the Kent variant is 50% more transmissible than the old strain.
“Therefore, it is important that the return to school is phased and planned in a way, a step wise process, so that in each phase we can estimate the impact to ensure we can keep community transmission down, the 'R' number down, before we then open up the next phase of return to school,” he continued.
“That way, we will get schools back in a sustainable way, I think the worst thing would be that we have children all back in school potentially and see a very significant rise in community transmission and that puts the whole thing back again.
“We all want children back in school, children need to be back in school and my advice is we just do that cautiously and carefully, but ultimately those are decisions for the Education Minister and for the Executive.”
The chief medical officer said he had not changed his position from last week, saying he had not given further advice to the Executive.