Coronavirus: Almost 1,500 cases recorded in NI schools

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Media caption,
Pupils and staff at Belfast Model School for Girls react to school closures

Almost 1,500 positive cases of coronavirus have been recorded in Northern Ireland schools since their August reopening, Peter Weir has said.

The education minister revealed the figure on the same day that schools began a two-week closure, aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19.

Mr Weir said the figure of 1,491 cases was "the overall school population" - taking in teachers, staff and students.

It is a cumulative figure from 24 August to 13 October, he added.

The minister said there are about 333,000 students at schools in Northern Ireland and about 19,000 staff.

He said the number of positive tests worked out at around 0.4% of the school population, which also means about one in every 250 pupils and staff members.

The education minister said schools had mostly had cases of single individuals testing positive.

A lot of questions

In early September a Department of Education official told Stormont's education committee there had been 88 Covid-19 cases in 64 schools during the first two weeks of term.

The education minister has now told assembly members there were 1,491 positive cases of individuals within schools during roughly the first seven weeks of term.

But that statistic still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

How many individual schools have been affected and how many of those cases are pupils and how many are staff?

How many schools have had to send pupils home to self-isolate for 14 days as a result of a positive case and how many pupils in total have been out of school for two weeks as a result?

The latest attendance rate for pupils is 93.7% but those at home self-isolating are still marked as present if they're receiving work, so the rate tells us little about the level of disruption Covid-19 is causing in schools.

"I hope the Public Health Agency will be in a position fairly soon to give a more detailed figure," he told assembly members on Monday.

Business fund

The two-week closure of Northern Ireland's schools, which includes the half-term holiday, is set to be reviewed on 2 November.

Restrictions imposed on businesses in Northern Ireland by the executive came in at 18:00 BST on Friday.

Restaurants and cafes are now limited to takeaway and delivery services for four weeks.

Media caption,
Northern Ireland's new restrictions - in 60 seconds

Restrictions have also been imposed on hotels, the beauty industry and on indoor and contact sport.

A further six Covid-19 related deaths have been reported in Northern Ireland by the Department of Health, bringing its total to 621.

The department also reported an additional 820 positive cases of the virus, meaning there have been 28,040.

There were 3,869 individuals tested in the previous 24 hours.

Image source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
Restaurants and cafes closed their doors to sit-in customers from 18:00 BST on Friday in NI

Mr Weir has vowed to oppose any move to extend the school closures in Northern Ireland beyond two weeks.

The minister said there had been little evidence that schools were significantly contributing to rising Covid-19 numbers.

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy said his party would have been prepared to back a longer closure, but they were "content" with the decision.

A fund to help businesses forced to shut due to increased coronavirus restrictions is due to open for applications on Monday.

The Department of Finance expects the scheme to cost £35m pounds over four weeks.

The fund is only available to businesses forced to close or where the use of premises is restricted and is an extension of the help already in place for businesses in the Derry City and Strabane council area.

Police made a number of arrests and handed out fixed penalty notices at a protest against the restrictions at Stormont on Sunday.

What are the new restrictions?

As well as the closure of the hospitality sector (apart from deliveries and takeaways), off-licences and supermarkets are not to sell alcohol after 20:00 and fast-food and takeaway premises are to close at 23:00.

Driving instructors must stop offering lessons and as a result, the Department of Infrastructure has also decided to suspend driving tests.

Other restrictions laid out in the guidance are:

  • No indoor sport or organised contact sport involving mixing of households, other than at elite level
  • No mass events involving more than 15 people (except for allowed outdoor sporting events where the relevant number for that will continue to apply)
  • Close-contact services such as hairdressers and beauticians to close - apart from those relating to the continuation of essential health interventions and therapeutics
  • Mobile hairdressers and make-up artists - also classed as close-contact services - prohibited from working in homes
  • Gyms to remain open for individual training but no classes permitted
  • Places of worship to remain open but face coverings mandatory when entering and exiting
  • Wedding ceremonies and civil partnerships to be limited to 25 people with no receptions. This will be implemented on Monday 19 October
  • Funerals to be limited to 25 people with no pre or post-funeral gatherings
  • Hotels to close, with exemptions for them to offer rooms to essential workers such as workers who need hotels for work-related purposes and "staff on the front line battling Covid"

The following advice has been added to the existing health guidance:

  • Work from home unless unable to do so
  • Universities and further education to deliver distance learning to the maximum extent possible with only essential face to face learning where that is a necessary and unavoidable part of the course
  • No unnecessary travel should be undertaken