All schools in Northern Ireland to close from Monday
Arlene Foster move was likely to mean they would remain shut during the summer
The five teachers unions said there was ‘increasing concern around the safety of pupils and school staff’. File photograph: The Irish Times
She was delivering a joint press conference with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill in response to the coronavirus crisis.
At the Stormont press conference Ms O’Neill also announced schemes worth £370 million to assist businesses threatened by the Covid-19 emergency.
On schools Ms Foster said it was an “unprecedented” step and one that was likely to mean they would remain shut during the summer.
Ms Foster made her statement on a day when it also was announced that schools in England, Scotland and Wales will close from Friday.
There was no Ministerial instruction in relation to crèches.
A number of Northern Ireland schools taking advantage of the St Patrick’s Day holiday already had decided to close for the rest of this week.
Hitherto, the DUP education Minister Peter Weir had resisted calls for school closures. Earlier on Wednesday he told the Northern Assembly education committee that shutting schools would “lead to enormous disruption of the health service and frontline services and take quite a large number of those workers out of the equation, just at a time when they are needed to be there”.
Shortly after 5pm and after a day when the North’s five teacher unions “implored” the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to set a date for school closures Ms Foster told reporters schools would close on Monday.
She said the decision to delay the closures up to now was based on medical advice. She said the social and economic impact would be “enormous” as parents adjusted their routines to deal with this “unplanned long term closure”.
Ms Foster said the Northern Executive was “exploring” how schools could continue to be a “base for the education of children whose parents are health service staff or indeed other key workers such as the blue light services”.
She added that it was also being examined how children could be educated remotely.
Ms O’Neill also spoke about the “unprecedented” nature of the crisis. She said as powersharing political leaders they would do “absolutely everything within our power to protect our society”.
This would include caring for the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable. The Executive also would launch community support funds, she said.
Ms O’Neill added that the Executive would provide two new special grant schemes to assist business, with further such announcements promised in the coming days.
The first would be a grant of £10,000 to all small businesses who were eligible for the small business rate relief scheme. This was estimated to benefit 27,000 businesses and cost £267 million.
The second scheme would be a grant of £25,000 to companies in the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors if their rateable value was between £15,000 and £51,000. This was estimated to benefit 4,000 business and cost about £100 million.
She said that the Executive already was committed to providing a three-month rate holiday to all businesses from April to June.
Ms O’Neill added, “We need to be compassionate. We need to be caring for one another. We need to come together like we have never done before.”
Ms Foster said she and Ms O’Neill came from different backgrounds but their circumstances were very similar.
“We are mothers, daughters and sisters trying to do the right thing as politicians,” she said while adding that Covid-19 did not discriminate and was “neither British or Irish, unionist or nationalist”.
“So, our response must mirror this and politics has to be set aside,” she said.
Ms Foster added, “Coronavirus and its societal and economic impact is bigger than all of us, and today we stand united as leaders to help guide Northern Ireland, our people, through this time of unprecedented challenge.
“We know that in the time ahead we are going to have to dig deep and draw on the fount of human endeavour, of neighbourliness, and of unity of purpose and of spirit, and together we will succeed…We will do everything in our power to help.
“It may be a time for social distancing but it is not the time to be selfish or to walk by on the other side. This is the time to be the Good Samaritan, and we all have our part to play.”