SCHOOLS in Northern Ireland are set to close before Easter and not reopen until late summer if coronavirus rates continue to soar.
That scenario is looking increasingly likely as cases across the UK soared by a third yesterday to 1,140 positive tests for coronavirus, up from 798 just 24 hours earlier. Cases in Northern Ireland rose last night by five to 34, with sources telling Sunday Life cases have been reported in every county here.
Ten more patients have died in England after testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the coronavirus death toll to 21 in the UK. A number of the patients, who were over 60, had underlying health conditions. A man in the Republic who had the virus died yesterday, the second death there. More than 150,000 people across the world have been infected with at least 5,400 deaths.
First Minister Arlene Foster yesterday said that schools will close, as they already have in the Republic, when "the timing is right" and parents should prepare as they may close for several months.
Speaking as the North-South Ministerial Council met in Co Armagh, she said: "Schools will not be closed immediately but schools and parents should prepare because when they do they will close for at least 16 weeks."
A Stormont source last night told Sunday Life: "This will happen sooner rather than later, certainly before Easter. We are in unprecedented times."
When asked about the different approaches being taken on both sides of the border, Mrs Foster said: "I don't think the co-operation could be any better between our chief medical officers, between our ministers of health and between the Government of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive.
"We will take that action when it is the right time to do it. There are two different jurisdictions on this island and we may do things differently in terms of timing, but the tools are all the same in terms of what we are going to do to try and combat this virus."
The Taoiseach yesterday said his government and the Executive share the same goal on tackling Covid-19 but they differ on timing.
Leo Varadkar has said Covid-19 is an illness "that knows no borders" as administrations on either side of the border follow different strategies.
Mr Varadkar said: "This virus knows no borders, no nationality. It is a problem for all of us. Our response to it is made more difficult as we do have two jurisdictions on this island."
There are 163 cases of Covid-19 on the island of Ireland, with 39 new cases in the Republic yesterday taking its cases to 129, but differences have emerged as schools there have closed and public gatherings have been curtailed.
Northern Ireland's administration has not introduced the same measures as the Republic, although Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said schools should be shut.
Mr Varadkar said: "We are different jurisdictions and there are differences and there will be differences, but the differences that exist are mostly around timing.
"What there isn't any difference about is our common objective, which is to slow down this virus in its tracks and push it back as much as possible and limit the harm to human health and human life."
It comes as Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir has insisted it remains the wrong time to close schools here.
Mr Weir was responding after the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, wrote to urge him to consider closing schools, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also said schools should close.
Mrs O'Neill repeated her call that we should follow the Republic's lead and close schools.
She said: "People are taking decisions in advance of government and my own personal opinion is that schools should close now.
"I think the fact that you can have two schools a mile apart and one school's open and one school's closed, that's a very confusing picture and a very confusing message for the public."
Mrs Foster said both governments had "very coherent messages" and that Stormont is taking advice from the Public Health Agency and the chief medical officer on when was the appropriate time to shut schools.
Ulster University and Queen's University are preparing for remote study and working for staff and students. While both universities remain open, large-scale events of more than 1,000 people have been cancelled at all campuses.
The British Government will implement more extreme measures next week including plans to ban mass gatherings. This means concerts, sports events and the Grand National horse race all face the axe.
Mrs Foster is to meet with Hospitality Ulster tomorrow regarding the deepening financial crisis in the hospitality sector due to the impact Covid-19 is having.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: "We are now at a financial tipping point. Our sector is being hit first, will be hit the hardest, and may not recover at all if Government does not act now."
Yesterday Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon wrote to councils calling on them to temporarily lift restrictions to allow day and night deliveries for food retailers to help avoid shortages.