Coronavirus: NI Assembly recalled due to concerns over student absences

North’s Department of Health reports seven more deaths and 1,748 additional infections

The North’s Assembly is to be recalled due to “significant concerns” over pupil absences due to Covid-19.

More than 3,500 people aged five to 19 have tested positive for the virus in the last seven days, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, published on Tuesday.

Growing numbers of students are absent from school because they are a close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus and there have been reports of pupils unable to book PCR tests and queues at some testing centres due to lack of availability.

Under the current rules in force in Northern Ireland, students who are deemed close contacts do not have to self-isolate for 10 days but can return to class if they test negative for Covid-19 and have no symptoms on day two of their absence. They must also take another PCR test on day eight.

Earlier this week the principal of Larne High School said more than half of the school's pupils were not in class because they were close contacts of someone who had tested positive.

Ministers will return to the Assembly on Thursday to debate a recall motion put forward by the Sinn Féin Assembly member (MLA) Pat Sheehan, which reached the required 30 signatures on Tuesday.

The motion states that the Assembly expresses its “significant concern with increasing reports of pupil absences due to the Covid-19 situation in our schools [and] recognises that this situation has been worsened by the failure of the Minister of Education to develop clear and robust guidance for our school staff”.

It also "notes the scale of the burden which this has placed on many of our principals and teachers; and calls on the Minister of Education to work urgently with the Public Health Agency to issue guidance which is cognizant of the unique circumstances of the school setting in the context of Covid-19".

First Minister, the DUP's Paul Givan, told the BBC on Tuesday that Ministers "need to be considering other options" including changing the rules to allow pupils to take lateral flow tests rather than a PCR test.

He said that when the Northern Executive meets on Thursday he wanted an update from the Department of Health, and that “if the system can’t cope with the current policy, then I think the Executive needs to be considering all of the options because we need our children in school”.

‘Greater clarity’

Chairman of the Stormont Education Committee, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, has written to the North's chief medical officer and the Public Health Agency to ask them to attend a committee meeting on Wednesday in order to provide "greater clarity on what the evidence is behind the system we have in place, and whether the system is operating as it is supposed to".

The Public Health Agency said it was aware of “significant demand” on Covid-19 PCR testing and was looking at “all options” to increase availability. PCR tests can also be ordered for home delivery.

The Minister for Education, the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen, said “detailed discussions” were ongoing between her department and the Department of Health “on measures to alleviate current pressures facing our schools as a result of Covid-19. Proposals are being finalised and will be discussed with relevant stakeholders this week,” she said.

Meanwhile, seven more people with Covid-19 have died, the North’s Department of Health reported on Tuesday.

Four of the fatalities took place within the most recent 24-hour reporting period, while three took place previously.

A further 1,748 people tested positive for the disease.

In the North’s hospitals 461 people are receiving treatment for the virus, with 45 in intensive care.