Stephen Donnelly clarifies school reopening remarks as Government prepares to announce lockdown extension
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly clarified his comments on school reopening shortly after midnight in a tweet.
Schools will be partially reopened in March. Junior and senior infants, first and second class and Leaving Cert – amounting to 330,000 students – will return on March 1st. Childcare will resume on a phased basis, beginning with the the State’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) preschool scheme on March 8th.
But on Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ on Monday night, Mr Donnelly said he could not confirm which classes would go back to school and when.
He said that his understanding was the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advice that was given to him applied to junior and senior infants only, and that talks were ongoing.
The Cabinet had sub-committee had already approved the school reopening plan on Monday night.
It will be brought to a full meeting of the Cabinet on Tuesday morning and is expected to be announced publicly in the afternoon.
Mr Donnelly later tweeted: “Clarification re return of schools - Meetings with the teaching unions concluded early this afternoon. Government intends making an announcement after Cabinet in line with plans as already outlined.”
Earlier on Claire Byrne Live, he had said Minister for Education Norma Foley was still in negotiations with teaching unions “and the Cabinet hopes to be in a position to announce something tomorrow”.
Asked if he could understand people’s frustration with the lack of firm information on reopening of schools, he said: “There is nobody more frustrated than Minister Foley about this, she’s been engaged with all the education partners on this, we want to get this over the line, and hopefully those talks can conclude in a positive way tonight or tomorrow morning.”
He told Claire Byrne Live after the subcommittee meeting on Monday night that his understanding was that concerns had been raised and talks were ongoing.
Labour Party education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin branded the Government “dysfunctional” following Mr Donnelly’s comments.
The next date in the school reopening plan is March 15th, when other primary school pupils and fifth years are expected to return. Under this plan, though, it is yet to be approved by Ministers, the remaining secondary school students will not return until after the Easter holidays, on April 12th.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin will announce an extension of the present lockdown for at least a month on Tuesday, once the Cabinet approves the updated plan for “living with Covid”.
Restrictions will be extended to April 5th, when there will be a review looking at the potential for easing the measures.
Despite hopes that certain social and economic activities could face some limited relaxations, sources said on Monday night that the high levels of disease and the priority of resuming education would likely limit room for manoeuvre elsewhere.
Thousands of students who attend special classes in mainstream primary and secondary schools returned to the classroom on Monday for the first time since before Christmas.
However, the construction sector will likely remain substantially closed aside from current exemptions, despite a last-minute push to allow work on private individual house completions.
Meanwhile, the Government is likely to back away from plans to allow some easing of outdoor restrictions, including non-contact training and socially distanced meetings.
Until last week, Ministers were actively discussing the limited resumption of such activity from early April but, despite strong arguments being made in favour of people’s mental health, continuing high case numbers and pressure on hospitals led to the move being jettisoned, and it is unlikely to be considered until after Easter.
Each step in the reopening plan will be followed by a break to assess the impact of resuming activities, while the new plan is unlikely to outline any “triggers” or specific dates for relaxing restrictions beyond those outlined for the resumption of schools.
Other restrictions on non-essential retail and the 5km exercise limit will remain in place.
There are growing concerns in Government about dwindling compliance with some aspects of Covid-19 regulations as fatigue sets in among the population. Data published on Monday shows that one-third of the population are not staying within 10km of their homes, and the level of adherence to restrictions has been decreasing during February.
Despite this, deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said on Monday that high levels of compliance by the majority were having a positive effect on hospitals, where infections in healthcare workers were falling alongside hospital outbreaks.
One further death of a Covid-19 patient was reported on Monday, bringing to 4,137 the total number of deaths in the pandemic. Another 686 cases of the disease were reported.
Changes to the vaccination schedule, being brought to Cabinet on Tuesday by Mr Donnelly, will mean those with certain chronic health conditions will be offered earlier vaccinations. It is unlikely all those with chronic conditions – a cohort estimated to include 370,000 people – will be prioritised.
He is also likely to tell Cabinet colleagues that the State is in a position to administer 250,000 vaccines a week, once supplies arrive.
There is also likely to be an update on the plans to impose a mandatory quarantine in designated hotels on travellers from high risk countries. This morning Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the legislation, which was first promised last month, would be finalised in the next two weeks.
Mr Donnelly said he is bringing legislation on hotel quarantine through the Dáil on Wednesday and Thursday.