Northern Ireland news

Covid-19: DUP members question phased reopening of schools

Edwin Poots has questioned the plan for children to return to school in phases

Former Stormont minister Edwin Poots has questioned the Executive's decisions on the phased reopening of schools.

Mr Poots, who returned to the Assembly chamber on Tuesday following cancer surgery, said children's education had "suffered inordinately" as a result of school closures.

"And for me the logic of putting P1 to P3 back for two weeks (from March 8) and then to take them out of school (on March 22) to allow senior school children from a different school, in years 11 to 14, to go back to school, I just can't work it out," he told MLAs.

"I know that this is not what the Education Minister (Peter Weir) wanted, it's not what he desired but that other Executive members wouldn't allow him to open up in a more meaningful and productive way.

"So I would urge that issue to be looked at again because the public health message isn't one that schoolchildren are the big spreaders of Covid."

Mr Poots was speaking after DUP leader Arlene Foster said Education Minister Peter Weir’s preferred option was to have all children back at school on March 8, the same as in England.

Mr Weir told the BBC today that his preferred option "was to see everyone returned to school on the 8 March".

"With some of the emerging evidence we've seen this week in Scotland... I think there is a strong case that we need to prioritise the education of our young people and get them back as soon as possible," he said.

"We've got the immediate return of P1 to P3 - I don't see why there can't be immediate movement for the rest of primary schools."

Mr Poots stood down as Agriculture Minister last month to undergo cancer treatment.

While he returned to the Assembly today, the DUP said he was "easing back into work" and would not be returning to his ministerial duties immediately.

DUP MLA Paul Givan said that England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty had justified a full return to schools on March 8 on the basis that the risks were negligible.

He asked why Northern Ireland had adopted a different approach.

"If it's based upon the science, why is our science so different to England compared to here in Northern Ireland when we're dealing with very similar dynamics of this virus?" Mr Givan asked.

He insisted that his party colleague Education Minister Peter Weir had not advocated the decision to allow P1 to P3 children to return for two weeks and then revert back to home learning for a week ahead of Easter.

"This is not what he wanted," he told MLAs.

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