Virus showing no sign of slowing down says expert as pupils return
A top virologist has warned of “many more” Covid outbreaks in schools unless extra measures are put in place as the new term starts.
Thousands of children returned to classrooms on Tuesday after a two week break, with concerns that not enough has been done to prevent a spate of further closures as the Department of Health reported over 30,000 new positive cases in Northern Ireland over the New Year weekend.
Queen’s University virologist Dr Connor Bamford said that the Omicron variant spreads faster and there was no evidence it was slowing down yet.
“I suspect there will be many outbreaks in schools unless further mitigating measures — such as increased ventilation or vaccinating younger children — are introduced,” he warned.
“Omicron is very good at getting past previous immunity and children and young people are the least vaccinated group.
“If we wanted to control or limit the virus there are things to consider, like better ventilation, considering vaccinating children from five years old and up, and bringing levels of infection down in the community.”
The Education Minister confirmed she had not spoken to the Educational Practitioners Group, an advisory group of school leaders and Trade Union representatives, before the start of the new school term. The group has not met in nearly six weeks and only once in the past three months.
Michelle McIlveen said that working with the Department for Education in Great Britain, they are now moving forward with the delivery of 7,000 high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, though there is no date yet for when they will arrive.
“We’ve worked very closely with the Department of Health and Public Health Agency throughout the Covid pandemic alongside school practitioners and trade unions,” Ms McIlveen said.
“There hasn’t been any change to the guidance because this very much comes as a recommendation from the Department of Health. At present we haven’t received anything different.
“There are a number of scenarios where schools can use remote learning, particularly where they are experiencing staff shortages and they haven’t been able to secure sufficient cover,” she added.
“My understanding is that my officials are in regular contact with the practitioners group and trade unions. That work has been ongoing since the start of the pandemic.”
But SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said schools had been abandoned by the failure to act over the last two weeks.
“This morning, the Minister had the opportunity to provide certainty. Instead she gave the impression of not being on top of her brief. Our children deserve better,” he said.
“There was silence from the Minister over the Christmas break. Schools were already at breaking point, still nothing was done.
“We could have put measures in place to address this if Minister McIlveen had listened to the concerns that were repeatedly put to her. She has let our entire school staff, parents and pupils down.”
Diane Dawson, principal at Braniel Primary School in east Belfast, warned the situation will be worse than before Christmas, with schools still working under completely different conditions to the rest of a society.
“I want the department to listen to our unions. They met with officials on December 31 but the unions came away saying how disappointing it was. There were no outcomes,” she said.
“Instead what we face are distressed parents. There is no such thing as a close contact in schools and there is no track and trace system in a school environment when there is in every other aspect of society. What they’re asking us to do is the impossible.
“The Minister needs to have an urgent meeting with unions. Our children need to be in school..
“I believe January will be worse than December,” she added.