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Funding available for air filtration systems in schools, says Finance Minister

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has said that investing in such systems would cost at least £40 million.

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Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, centre, has come under pressure over her handling of the pandemic in schools (Liam McBurney/PA)

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, centre, has come under pressure over her handling of the pandemic in schools (Liam McBurney/PA)

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, centre, has come under pressure over her handling of the pandemic in schools (Liam McBurney/PA)

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has been urged to bid for funding to equip schools with air filtration systems.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has written to Ms McIlveen, pledging his support for such a bid.

Earlier this week, Ms McIlveen said that investing in air filtration systems for every school would cost at least £40 million and questioned whether evidence of their effectiveness was available to justify this level of investment.

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Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Brian Lawless/PA)

Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Brian Lawless/PA)

PA

Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Brian Lawless/PA)

It comes as schools reopened after the Christmas break during record high numbers of Covid-19 cases in the community due to the Omicron variant.

In a letter seen by the PA news agency, Mr Murphy said he wished to clarify that “significant in-year capital funding will remain available for allocation even if all existing bids are met in the January monitoring round”.

He went on to note that the Department of Education had not made a bid for funding for air filtration or ventilation devices.

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“If you choose to make such a bid as part of the monitoring round, I would make a supportive recommendation to the Executive,” Mr Murphy wrote.

“I would therefore be grateful if you could advise as a matter of urgency whether you intend to submit a bid.”

The letter comes after a debate in the Assembly earlier this week where Ms McIlveen came under pressure over her handling of the pandemic in schools.

But Ms McIlveen told MLAs that air filtration systems were not the “magic solution to ending Covid-19 transmission in schools”.

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The Education Department had not made a bid for funding for air filtration or ventilation devices, the Finance Minister said (Ben Birchall/PA)

The Education Department had not made a bid for funding for air filtration or ventilation devices, the Finance Minister said (Ben Birchall/PA)

PA

The Education Department had not made a bid for funding for air filtration or ventilation devices, the Finance Minister said (Ben Birchall/PA)

She estimated that installing them in 20,000 classrooms across the region would cost at least £40 million, and questioned whether there was enough evidence of their effectiveness to justify the investment.

Ms McIlveen said she was investing £2 million this year on ventilation works, including replacing old and defective windows, CO2 monitors, and an initial 100 air filtration units.

She said action had been taken on workforce shortages, including asking recently retired teachers to return, which had resulted in more than 100 people putting their names on the substitute teachers’ register.

A Department of Education spokesperson said: “The scientific advice from Sage regarding the effectiveness of air cleaners is inconclusive and the Minister has written to the Minister for Health seeking advice from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser on the use of air filters in schools.

“The Minister will continue to take decisions based on evidence and public health and scientific advice.  

“If this supports investment in air filtration units, the Minister will have no hesitation in bidding to the Department of Finance for funds. 

“However, she will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend up to £40m of public money.

“Existing measures to reduce transmission in schools are set out in the DE Guidance and include: good natural ventilation; good hand and respiratory hygiene; consistent groups where possible; and reducing contacts.

“The Executive’s vaccination programme is available to all staff. 

“No single measure is the magic solution but this range of mitigations acts collectively to reduce risk as much as possible.”


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