Schools in Northern Ireland are expected to close for at least 16 weeks, it was announced last weekend, following the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak.

First minister Arlene Foster was in talks with senior ministers from the NI Executive and Irish government, to determine if and when schools in Northern Ireland will close.

Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said they were both still split over the issue of school closures. O’Neill has repeated her call for schools to be shut immediately, in line with the Republic of Ireland. However, Mrs Foster said that schools will close “when we are advised on the medical evidence”.

“Children will be at home for quite a considerable period of time, given that when we do close the schools they will be closed for at least 16 weeks,” she said.

“Then of course you are into the summer period, so they will be off school for a very long time.”

Ms O’Neill said that all parties in the executive agreed schools would have to close, but it was really a matter of timing.

She said: “In my opinion schools should close now. I think we need to be consistent across this island.

“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.”

Two primary schools have already closed voluntarily starting this week – the first schools in NI to do so. They are Lurgen Model Primary School in County Armagh, and St Scire’s in Trillick, County Tyrone.

Lurgen Model announced it would close for the whole week, bringing planned closures due for May forward to this week. Meanwhile St Scires said it would close on Monday ahead of planned St Patrick’s closures on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Lurgen Model added that it will not officially reopen until Monday, 23rd March, but will monitor the situation of the coming week. St Scire’s said that it would review its situation prior to Thursday 19th.

Ms O’Neill first called for schools to close immediately on Friday 13th March. On Saturday 14th, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also called for schools to close, after Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, wrote to NI’s education minister asking him to consider closures.

A Question of “Timing”

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar said the main differences between the two governments was over timing.

He said the Northern Ireland Executive and Irish Government shared the same goal in slowing the advance of coronavirus. However, he explained there would inevitably be differences in how they approached it.

“The differences that exist are mostly around timing,” he said.

“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.”

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.

Leo VaradkarTaoiseach (Irish prime minister)

Mr Varadkar also explained that they did not intend to give such short notice of the school closures to counterparts in Northern Ireland and the UK.

“I absolutely guarantee you I did not intend to make that announcement or speak to Irish people on the steps of Blair House in Washington DC,” he said.

“We had a plan in place to move to delay phase. We had to bring that forward almost overnight.”

He added that although Irish officials tried to give as much notice to surrounding authorities as they could, it was also “important that the Irish people should hear the news first from me and from the government”.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald – who did not attend the meeting last weekend – said the UK’s response to coronavirus “should be rejected” and is “totally unacceptable in the north of Ireland”.

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