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Coronavirus: Schools won't return before summer with parents afraid to send children back

Report indicates majority of parents won't send children until pandemic under control

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Schools in Northern Ireland won't return until September (Tim Goode/PA)

Schools in Northern Ireland won't return until September (Tim Goode/PA)

Schools in Northern Ireland won't return until September (Tim Goode/PA)

Schools will remain closed until September after government modelling revealed only a tiny percentage of parents would be prepared to send their children back before the summer.

Northern Ireland Executive insiders told Sunday Life that fears over coronavirus means less than 10% of kids would return to full-time education if schools were to reopen in the coming weeks.

In recent days there have been indications that schools elsewhere in the UK may reopen in late May or early June. Cabinet minister Michael Gove has said that English schools won't reopen on May 11 as some media outlets reported, though there are plans in the works.

"Detailed estimates show that people are too afraid to send their children back, so reopening schools before the summer would be pointless," said a Stormont source involved in the post-lockdown discussions.

The pandemic claimed another 21 lives in Northern Ireland this weekend, bringing the total number of deaths here to 299. Around a third of these are in care homes and hospices across the province.

The UK is the fifth country to pass 20,000 deaths in hospital from Covid-19, behind the US, Italy, Spain and France. It was announced yesterday that a total of 20,319 patients have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus - up by 813 from the previous day.

In the Republic of Ireland a further 52 people have died with Covid-19, bringing the death toll there to 1,063.

The latest death and infections tolls come amid intense discussions by ministers and government advisers over a post-lockdown plan. Although a way forward is being mapped out there is no set timetable to lift current restrictions.

The two most important factors in any decision will be the capability to carry out mass testing while keeping all hospital admissions at a manageable level.

This newspaper has been told by senior politicians that if these two key targets are not met, then restrictions will remain in place.

A total of 21,153 Covid-19 tests have been carried out in Northern Ireland - a figure that is woefully short of the level needed before the easing of any lockdown, while 55% of our 3,746 hospital beds are currently occupied.

As we enter the sixth week of restrictions tomorrow there are clear signs of a restless public venturing out more than in previous weeks.

Increased traffic on roads and street footfall are clear indicators of this, as are queues outside hardware stores which have opened to the public, including B&Q in Belfast (Holywood Exchange), Lisburn (Sprucefield) and Newtownabbey. Homebase stores are also beginning to open their doors again from this weekend across the UK.

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General view of care-taking staff from Mid & East Antrim Council at the Ballee Cemetery in Ballymena this morning as the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to reopen cemeteries during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

General view of care-taking staff from Mid & East Antrim Council at the Ballee Cemetery in Ballymena this morning as the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to reopen cemeteries during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

General view of care-taking staff from Mid & East Antrim Council at the Ballee Cemetery in Ballymena this morning as the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to reopen cemeteries during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Cemeteries, which were closed last month, have also reopened with certain restrictions after outrage from families unable to visit the graves of loved ones forced a political U-turn. Yesterday people were photographed returning to cemeteries in Ballymena, Carnmoney and Londonderry, among other areas.

Laws around the issue of travelling for exercise have also been clarified - a move welcomed by PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd, whose officers faced criticism of heavyhandness after 358 fines were issued since March 30.

Updated guidance says that a drive to a safe space or facility would be permitted. However, "taking a long drive to a beach or resort where numbers of people may gather is unlikely to be regarded as reasonable".

Mr Todd said: "We said that greater clarity in the regulations would have undoubtedly made our job easier to police this current health crisis. Therefore we welcome the announcement and the clarity that the change to the regulations will bring to the public and police officers alike."

Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who spent Saturday on patrol in Magherafelt, praised those observing social distancing in order to stop Covid-19 spreading.

Getting this message across, according to Executive insiders, remains the top priority of ministers. "The important thing is to manage to contain the virus and to keep the curve down," said our Executive source.

"The one thing we don't want to do is make a dash from the exit now, go too early and encounter a second more damaging wave. That would be a big, and in many cases fatal mistake."

Referring to the Executive's phased lockdown recovery plan, the insider added: "Central to this is the three Ts - testing, tracing and treating. We are trying to get that up and running. Environmental health officers from local government have been seconded to carry out testing and tracing.

"What is important to understand is that we cannot test our way out of coronavirus. The way out is to test and then trace. By doing that you can identify clusters."

A major media campaign to get the public on board with this will be rolled out in the coming weeks.

"It is hugely important to get the population to think along these lines and buy into this process," our source said. "The public needs to think what post-lockdown looks like. Families need to consider how they handle childcare and employment. All these things need to be considered, along with schooling, exams, and clinical procedures at hospitals."

On the thorny issue of schools reopening, Executive sources have admitted this will not be until September after modelling showed an extremely low uptake of pupils if they were to reopen soon.

Our insider said: "It is highly, highly unlikely that schools will reopen before September. If they were to reopen soon there would hardly be a child in attendance. Estimates we have is that there would be less than 10% take-up because people are afraid of children bringing Covid-19 back into their homes."

Meanwhile, Derry priest Fr John McNamara who died from Covid-19 was buried yesterday after a private funeral at St Columba's Church in the city.

Friends of the popular cleric, who was born in Scotland and based in the Termonbacca Retreat Centre in the city, were able to watch the service online.

The 82-year-old was hugely popular in the north-west, with colleague Fr John Grennan saying he was "heartbroken" by his death.

"Father John was a wonderful person who always had the welfare of others as his number one priority," said Fr Grennan.

Fr McNamara is understood to have contracted Covid-19 while recovering from surgery.

cbarnes@sundaylife.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph