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Schools versus pubs: Education Minister Peter Weir at odds with medical chief

Weir insists there's no 'battle' over who can stay open as he rules out cancelling exams next year

Education Minister Peter Weir has said it is not a "battle" between keeping schools open and the hospitality industry closed in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir was speaking on Monday as tens of thousands of pupils and staff returned to the classroom, with schools across Northern Ireland reopening following an extended mid-term break with special safety measures.

They include the mandatory wearing of face coverings for post-primary pupils on school transport. Parent and carers are also urged not to congregate at school gates when dropping off pupils.

Mr Weir was responding after the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride told Cool FM at the weekend that the Executive faces "very difficult choices" between what can be open.

He said: "We all realise how important the education of our children is. We all recognise the price that young people have paid to date in terms of their education and future employment opportunities.

"But it will not be possible to keep R below 1 with a return to schools and with hospitality open. It is just not going to be possible to do that. That's the sort of difficult dilemmas the Executive will face."

Speaking at Glenlola Collegiate Girls School in Bangor on Monday, Mr Weir said that it should not be put as a "tension" between the two.


Education Minister Peter Weir

Education Minister Peter Weir

Education Minister Peter Weir

"As an Executive what we are looking at is how to find a way of ensuring that once the lockdown is completed that we can actually learn to live with the virus.

"That will mean a range of interventions. It means particular actions which are more focused."

Mr Weir added: "Simply trying to turn everything off and turn everything on again is not something which is a long-term solution. We have to be more nuanced in our approach to try to ensure that we stop the spread of the virus, but also enable society as a whole to carry on and have that functionality which I think everybody needs."

On Monday the Department of Health announced there had been eight further Covid-19-linked deaths in Northern Ireland and 493 new cases of the virus.

The death toll recorded by the department now stands at 724.

There have been 39,609 confirmed cases in Northern Ireland, including 4,949 in the last seven days.

There are currently 379 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 52 in intensive care. Meanwhile Mr Weir also ruled out cancelling GCSE and A-Level exams this school year despite the disruption caused to students' education by the Covid-19 pandemic and said it was important that exams go ahead.

"It is particularly important that we have compatibility and portability with the rest of the United Kingdom," he said.

"This is not something we can go on a solo run because, particularly when it comes to universities and jobs, our students are going to be competing with those from different parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere."

Exams have been scheduled for one week later than normal in 2021. The DUP MLA added: "We are not envisaging exams being cancelled and we have asked CCEA to look at contingency arrangements. What I think is much more likely is there will be a range of mitigations, some of which have been announced already. Others are being worked on on a national basis.

"I think the contingency arrangements will be particularly pertinent because there will inevitably be some pupils who find themselves in a position, either through self-isolation or because they have the virus at that particular time, will not be able to sit a particular exam."

Mr Weir said that face-to-face teaching is a "critical element" of students' education.

"In responding as we have done in the Executive it is very clear that the overwhelming desire, particularly of the parents, is to see their children fully integrated into schools," he said.

"There is also a critical role for parents to play in trying to ensure that any level of disruption that happens within schools and also any spread of the virus is kept to a minimum."

Gary Greer, principal of Bloomfield Collegiate in east Belfast, said pupils were returning to his school safe in the knowledge that its current safety measures are working.


Confident: Gary Greer said safety measures at his school were working

Confident: Gary Greer said safety measures at his school were working

Confident: Gary Greer said safety measures at his school were working

"We want to be back and for everybody to be safe but there's always that worry about what's happening outside of school rather than inside.

"We can control what's happening in the classroom but not what's going on within society which is a bit worrying."

Simon Mowbray, headmaster of Devenish College in Enniskillen, added: "There is apprehension but we're of the opinion that school is the best place for pupils to be and it's as safe as it possibly can be."

Belfast Telegraph