Coronavirus: 'No plans' for extended Christmas school break in NI

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

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There are "no plans" to extend the Christmas break for schools in NI, Education Minister Peter Weir has said.

He dismissed the possibility that schools could close early for the holiday as a "rumour".

NI's current R number has now climbed closer to 1.0 and is expected to rise as the hospitality industry opens up over the next couple of weeks.

As a result, additional interventions are expected before Christmas, the chief scientific adviser said.

Prof Ian Young said the R value had risen in recent weeks due to continued widespread community transmission of the virus.

He added that additional mitigations will be suggested to the hospitality industry including reducing numbers and increasing ventilation.

Meanwhile the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride appealed to everyone to continue playing their part despite the fact that the "virus continues to mess with our heads and our lives".

Dr McBride said he's optimistic that Northern Ireland will begin to vaccinate some people by the end of the year.

Earlier, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she did not rule out blocking more Covid-19 restrictions if required.

However, the first minister added she wanted to "find consensus" with executive colleagues.

Last week, the DUP blocked two separate proposals from the health minister to extend restrictions by triggering a cross-community vote.

The DUP has been criticised by other Stormont parties for using the measure.

It can be used on any issue in the executive, of three or more ministers ask for a vote to be taken on that basis, effectively giving parties with enough ministers a veto.

On Monday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said it was a "matter of profound concern and regret" that the DUP had used it twice.

Mrs Foster said the veto was used on a "key decision" because of the impact of restrictions on the economy.

"I hope we can come to decisions in a collaborative, collegiate way... I want to make sure we go forward together," she added.

The first minister also dismissed reports that an executive meeting scheduled for Tuesday had been cancelled.

"We normally only meet on a Thursday - nothing should be read into that at all. Government is continuing, we don't need an executive to make that happen," she said.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said she had considered her position in the executive because of last week's handling of restrictions, and said continued use of the veto was an "abuse of power" by the DUP.

image captionEducation Minister Peter Weir said an extended Christmas break could lead to a greater spread of the virus

Some of the current Covid-19 restrictions are due to end on Friday with the reopening of close-contact services and unlicensed hospitality businesses.

Restaurants, pubs and hotels can reopen on 27 November, as the rest of the Covid-19 restrictions introduced on 16 October will expire at midnight on 26 November.

Ms O'Neill has said the executive will do all it can to "protect" as much of the Christmas period as possible.

It comes after NI's chief scientific adviser warned further Covid-19 restrictions will likely be recommended before Christmas.

Prof Ian Young said mid-December could be the "big risk period".

A further nine people with Covid-19 have died in NI, the Department of Health has said.

The death toll recorded by the department now stands at 878.

There were also another 549 confirmed cases of the virus recorded in the last 24-hour reporting period.

A total of 47,711 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland since the pandemic began.

On Tuesday, 11 more people diagnosed with Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland died, according to Department of Health figures.

The total number of Covid-19 related deaths in the country is now 1,995.

In addition, a further 366 cases of coronavirus were confirmed, bringing the total number to 68,686.

Christmas holidays

On Tuesday, Education Minister Peter Weir said schools would not be closing early for the Christmas holidays for two reasons.

"We want to ensure the maximum amount of education for our young people and I don't want to see any further disruption to that," he said.

"It's also the case that we've seen the biggest problems not within the controlled environment of schools but actually some of the things that have happened outside of schools.

"If we simply inject an extra week of holiday into the Christmas period, from a public health point of view, it's likely to lead to much higher levels of socialisation and greater spread of the virus."

Mr Weir was speaking during a visit to a school in Bangor where he announced an additional £5m for schools to pay for mental health help for pupils.

The minister said the money would allow schools to pick which wellbeing initiatives they want to invest in.

In other coronavirus developments on Tuesday:

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