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Schools look set to remain closed ahead of Cabinet meeting on Wednesday

Taoiseach Micheal Martin believes there is “an issue” with having more than one million people being “on the go” if schools reopen as planned.

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Micheal Martin called growth of community transmission ‘very very serious’ (Julien Behal Photography)

Micheal Martin called growth of community transmission ‘very very serious’ (Julien Behal Photography)

Micheal Martin called growth of community transmission ‘very very serious’ (Julien Behal Photography)

Schools look set to close until the end of January at the earliest with the Cabinet to meet on Wednesday to sign off on the measures.

It comes against the backdrop of rising coronavirus cases, and admissions to hospitals and intensive care units.

Tuesday brought 17 further deaths linked to coronavirus and an additional 5,325 confirmed cases, the Department of Health said.

The Taoiseach has said he agrees with the chief medical officer that there is “an issue” with having more than one million people being “on the go” if schools reopen as planned.

Micheal Martin said “one has to really measure the advisability of doing that” given the “rapidity” of the spread of coronavirus both at home and in other jurisdictions.

He confirmed the Government is considering closing schools for the rest of the month.

On Tuesday a post went out on the Fianna Fail social media channels appearing to confirm school closures, before it was quickly deleted.

It read: “An Taoiseach @MichealMartinTD has confirmed that schools will remain closed.

“To flatten the curve once again we all need to stay home unless for essential services.”

The Taoiseach said the Cabinet Covid sub-committee, which met on Tuesday,  would examine the issue of schools “in greater detail”.

He said Cabinet would formally decide on Wednesday what measures that would be adopted.

The leaders of the coalition parties, Mr Martin, Tanaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Green Party leader and Transport Minister Eamon Ryan, and a number of other ministers and public health officers were expected to participate in the discussion.

We have to think beyond next week and the week after, we have to think to the end of the term, we have to think of the Leaving Certificate of the examinationsMicheal Martin

The Government last week made the decision to postpone the reopening of schools following the Christmas break until January 11 in the midst of the latest wave of the virus.

Mr Martin told RTE’s News at One the rapid growth of community transmission rates was “very, very serious” and that it had “exceeded any expectation”.

“We have to supress the virus and that will mean a really significant reduction in the mobility of people in this country back to levels that we last saw in March,” he said.

“We have to say to people: you’ve got to stay at home over the next number of weeks bar essential purposes.”

The Taoiseach reiterated that schools remained “safe” and that the latest decision-making would not be in response to how the sector was performing, rather it was about “an overall societal response to a very rapid spread” of the virus in the community.

“We have to think beyond next week and the week after, we have to think to the end of the term, we have to think of the Leaving Certificate of the examinations,” he said.

He added that special education measures for families that have children with special needs would be among the issues being deliberated.

Asked what the benchmark for reopening schools would be, Mr Martin replied that the Government wants to see the trajectory of the disease “going in the opposite direction to the one that it is going in now”.

“We need to turn this around and we will assess this again on January 30,” he said.

Mr Martin also said the potential closure of early childcare education and the construction sector would also be discussed.

The Taoiseach’s comments came as the Ombudsman for Children urged the Government to avoid a blanket closure of schools due to the disproportionately negative effect it would have on children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Speaking in advance of the Cabinet sub-committee meeting, Dr Niall Muldoon said: “The simple blanket closure of all schools, as happened in March last year, is not a viable option because of the massive impact it will have on our children and their families.

“Without a doubt, children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once more be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 school closures, therefore any long-term measures to reduce transmission in society must consider the substantial negative impact on these groups.”

Sinn Fein health spokesman David Cullinane accused the Government of sending “mixed messages” in relation to schools.

He said: “They weren’t being clear or levelling with people in relation to the risks involved in reopening schools at this point in time.”

The responsibility is now back to the Minister for Education, and indeed the Government, to develop a comprehensive plan that will set out very clearly how schools can reopen againDavid Cullinane, Sinn Fein

He added: “There is no room for mixed messaging. There is only room in the middle of a crisis that you have solid government, clear decision making, and clear communication of those decisions.”

Mr Cullinane called on the Government to produce a clear roadmap for when schools can return.

He said: “This is something that now needs to be done. The responsibility is now back to the Minister for Education, and indeed the Government, to develop a comprehensive plan that will set out very clearly how schools can reopen again.

“Nobody wants schools to be closed. But we all accept that in the current situation, given where the pandemic is at, where the numbers are at, hospitalisations as high as they are, that this is the right decision.”

Labour’s Aodhan O Riordain called on the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to find a path to facilitate in-class tuition for Leaving Cert students who wish to avail themselves of such provision.

The party’s education spokesman said the class of 2021 have already missed out on 11 weeks of classroom tuition in 2020 and, potentially, will miss another four weeks this year.

“This is putting this year’s cohort at a disadvantage of 16 weeks of in-class education,” he said.

Mr O Riordain added that consideration must be given to the potential impact of full closure on disadvantaged students, students with additional needs and the children of frontline workers.

On Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said there has been a concerning rise in hospitalisation, but that this could be brought under control if people stick to the public health advice.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said: “We are now experiencing a considerable surge in cases and hospitalisations. We can turn this around quickly if we stick to the measures we know worked last spring.

“We have seen some early progress in that the average number of contacts per case has been dropping in recent days – but we need to continue this effort to limit as much as we can our contact with other people in the days and weeks ahead.

“If we all stay home and keep to the public health advice, we can bring Covid-19 back under control – which ultimately will protect our essential services such as health and education, and, most importantly, save lives.”
ends

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