Stormont ministers have insisted it is not the right time to close Northern Ireland schools over coronavirus.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill acknowledged the closure announcement in the Irish Republic had left parents north of the border with many questions.
Mrs Foster, who expressed disappointment that the Irish government had given Stormont no prior notification of its move, insisted closures would be “counterproductive”.
-@moneillsf accepts differing NI/RoI positions on schools closures has created a lot of "confusion". @DUPleader says NI stance might seem "counter-intuitive" but insists closures would be "counterproductive". Expresses disappointment at lack of advance notice from @LeoVaradkar pic.twitter.com/2EwRcWDciU— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) March 12, 2020
She warned it could take healthcare workers away from hospitals and expose grandparents looking after children at home to increased risk from the potentially deadly virus.
Ms O’Neill said she accepted that the different positions adopted by ministers on opposite sides of the border had caused “confusion”.
The devolved administration the ministers lead is taking part in the UK-wide move towards delaying the spread of Covid-19 and anyone displaying symptoms is advised to self-isolate.
The DUP leader said the timing was crucial in respect of closing schools.
The timeliness of intervention is very important and that is why the science and the evidence is importantArlene Foster
“We are now moving into the delay phase and I know it’s difficult and counter-intuitive for some people who will say to us ‘why don’t you just do it now’, but the timeliness of interventions is very, very important and that’s where the science comes in and that’s where the evidence comes in,” she said.
In Ireland they have closed schools, colleges, childcare facilities, museums and other tourist attractions in a major lockdown aimed at thwarting the virus’ spread and guided by European and scientific experts.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was asked during his visit to Washington DC on Thursday for his reaction to the different approaches across the border.
He responded: “I appreciate that that is going to be an issue.
“We are different jurisdictions, different decisions will be made but we are going to keep in very close contact so that we inform each other of decisions we’re making and our thinking behind them.”
Northern Ireland’s open land border with the Republic means children attending classes just a few miles away will be ordered to stay at home.
Mrs Foster said the infection was more advanced in Ireland, with community transfer of the virus between patients with no links to overseas travel.
She said the advice of the chief medical officers in both Northern Ireland and England and the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) all advised against closing schools.
She noted that Scotland and Wales had taken the same position as Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill defended the decision not to close schools in Northern Ireland.
“I acknowledge readily that this is a very confusing day,” she said.
“I think that many parents will be left anxious, not just those who live in the border corridor but anyone who sends their children to school will be anxious as to why it’s a good idea in the south, but not the decision that we have taken here at this moment in time.”
She added: “We are working together, we are being guided by the medical science.
“We don’t believe at this minute in time that that is the right step to take.
“Inevitably we will get to the situation where we need to consider closing schools.”
Covid-19 will become our day jobRobin Swann
Ms O’Neill and Mrs Foster, who convened a meeting with emergency service representative to discuss the crisis on Thursday, said the position would be kept under review and both said a decision to schools may well be made in the time ahead.
Mrs Foster expressed frustration that she and fellow ministers in Belfast had not been given advance notice of the move in the Irish Republic.
“We were just made aware, I think about 10 minutes before the statement was made by the Taoiseach (Leo Varadkar), that he was going to make a statement, we didn’t know what the content of that statement was going to be,” she said.
“I think it’s disappointing that this is the case but however he made his decision and he has to carry through with that.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has warned doctors that coronavirus will put healthcare under “extreme pressure”.
Dr Michael McBride said increased demand will “inevitably” be exacerbated by staff shortage due to sickness or caring responsibilities.
He said: “It is likely that we will see community transmission in the next coming weeks. We need to minimise the impact right across the health and social care sector.”
Northern Ireland is still in the containment phase involving tracing contacts with those who test positive.
Cases so far have involved foreign travel or contact with someone who has travelled.
On Thursday, testing resulted in two new positive cases, bringing the total number in Northern Ireland to 20.
Both are adults and involved secondary transmissions.
One case involved recent travel from Northern Italy and the other can be traced to a previously reported case that involved recent travel to northern Italy.
Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann said the NHS is bracing itself for a death from Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland has recorded its first fatality linked to the infection.
Mr Swann said normal business will not be possible when the Covid-19 outbreak worsens.
“It is bound to take its toll,” he said. “Normal business in health and social care will not be possible. Some activities will have to be scaled back.
“Covid-19 will become our day job.”