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Stormont could review dates for schools’ return

Foster hoping Executive can revisit issue this week as PM unveils roadmap out of lockdown

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Optimism:  Prime Minister Boris Johnson  smiles during a televised Press conference at 10 Downing Street on Monday

Optimism:  Prime Minister Boris Johnson  smiles during a televised Press conference at 10 Downing Street on Monday

Optimism:  Prime Minister Boris Johnson  smiles during a televised Press conference at 10 Downing Street on Monday

Arlene Foster has said she hopes the Executive will revisit the dates for reopening schools.

The First Minister said she wants to give the public optimism when the path out of lockdown here is revealed next Monday, but cautioned that this must be the last.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a four-stage plan for exiting lockdown on Monday evening.

The first stage includes the return to school for all pupils in England on March 8.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Here, some primary school pupils will return to class on that date, with some older post-primary school children on March 22.

But there has been no date given for the full return of the wider school population.

Ahead of a meeting of the Executive on Thursday, Mrs Foster said she hoped that could be revisited.

She said Education Minister Peter Weir’s preferred option was to have all children back at school on March 8.

“Unfortunately, our health advisers didn’t think that that was the right way forward and I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward, but I hope we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own personal experience that the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom,” she told the BBC.

She emphasised she wanted to ensure that this is “the last lockdown”, but said she wanted to be positive.

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First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

“I very much hope that we can give optimism next Monday, that’s what I want to give — brighter days are coming, people do feel a sense of optimism, not least because of our vaccination programme... over 32% of our adult population have now been vaccinated, nearly 500,000 vaccines have been deployed and that gives a lot of hope to a lot of people.”

Earlier Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill cautioned the public not to expect a rapid exit from lockdown, insisting the route back to normality will be slow and steady.

Answering Assembly questions, the Sinn Fein vice president acknowledged that people were looking for some hope around what the future held.

She said: “We want to spell that out for people and it needs to be a step-by-step process, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it needs to be gradual.

“It’s going be slow and steady in terms of lifting of restrictions.

“But with the rollout of the vaccine in place now and the fact that it’s working so well, and we commend all those that are involved in delivering the vaccine, that combined with keeping the virus suppressed for as long as possible, then we need to chart out for people what the future looks like and we hope to do that next week.”

The Executive has already agreed to extend the current strict lockdown to April 1, albeit with a review on March 18.

Under the Prime Minister’s four-step plan, all limits on social contact could be lifted by June 21.

Another four deaths linked to Covid-19 were confirmed by Stormont’s Department of Health on Monday. And 187 new cases of the virus were also notified.

On Monday Mr Johnson said England is approaching “seasons of hope” that will usher in changes making lives “incomparably better” as he set out his plan. He defended his “cautious but also irreversible” approach to relaxing restrictions.

In the first step of the roadmap, all pupils in England’s schools are expected to return to class from March 8, with wider use of face masks and testing in secondaries.

Socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person will also be permitted from that date.

A further easing of restrictions will take place on March 29 when the school Easter holidays begin, with larger groups of up to six people or two households allowed to gather in parks and gardens.

But progress will depend on meeting four tests: the success of the vaccine rollout; evidence of vaccine efficacy; an assessment of new variants, and keeping infection rates below a level that could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

Mr Johnson said: “Thanks to the vaccinations there is light ahead, leading us to a spring and a summer, which I think will be seasons of hope, looking and feeling incomparably better for us all.”

The other points when restrictions may be eased at the earliest are:

  • April 12, when shops, hairdressers, nail salons, libraries, outdoor attractions and outdoor hospitality venues may reopen.
  • May 17, when two households or groups of up to six people may be allowed to mix indoors and crowds of up to 10,000 in the largest venues will be allowed at events.
  • “As soon as possible” and no later than step three, when ministers committed to reviewing social-distancing guidance that has prevented loved ones from hugging for nearly a year.
  • June 21, when all remaining restrictions on social contact could be lifted, larger events can go ahead and nightclubs could finally reopen.

Belfast Telegraph


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