Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has insisted he is not at odds with other UK CMOs on his approach to schools reopening.
Dr Michael McBride defended his advocacy of a phased return to face-to-face learning as he warned that a rush out of lockdown could trigger the worst wave of Covid yet.
Dr McBride made clear his advice to the Stormont executive, recommending a gradual return to classes, had not changed since he briefed ministers last week ahead of their decision on the issue.
Last Thursday, ministers unanimously backed a plan to bring some primary school children back on March 8, with some secondary school children returning to class two weeks later.
However, last night First Minister Arlene Foster said she wanted to revisit that decision.
Her remarks came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a full return to schools in England on March 8.
Dr McBride’s stance was questioned by some DUP MLAs on Tuesday, given the different approach taken in England.
They highlighted that England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said all the UK’s CMOs agreed that there was only a very small residual risk associated with children returning to school.
DUP Education minister Peter Weir said there appeared to be a “contradiction” between Dr McBride’s advice and Professor Whitty’s comments.
At his weekly media briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Dr McBride insisted he and Professor Whitty had not adopted contrary positions.
He said any difference in approach was a consequence of elected ministers in UK regions opting for different strategies.
Dr McBride said he and other CMOs across the UK were basing their advice on the same evidence.
He said advice from Sage said schools returning will increase the R number of the virus and could potentially push it above 1.
“I don’t think that there’s any difference of position in relation to the chief medical officers,” he said.
“I think that the evidence is clear and what we have is ministers making different decisions in different jurisdictions which, absolutely, they’re entitled to do, so I don’t think it would be accurate to present this as a chief medical officer of one jurisdiction saying one thing and a chief medical officer in another saying another – we provide advice and ministers make decisions.”
Dr McBride has said he remained of the view that schools should return in a “stepwise process”.
He also made clear he had not provided the Executive with any different advice to that he gave last week.
“I have not provided further advice to the Executive in the last number of days,” he said.
Dr McBride said it was important that children returned in phases so the impact of their return on Covid-19 infection rates could be assessed.
“We all want children back to school, children need to be back in school and my advice is that we just do that cautiously and carefully,” he said.
He warned that a rush out of lockdown could prompt the worst wave of Covid-19 yet.
“There is a significant risk at this point in time if we move back from the current restrictions too quickly or too rapidly that we will see a resurgence in cases and that could result in a further wave of infection which could be even greater than the numbers we saw back in January,” he said.
“And that’s why it’s very important that the decisions by the Executive in terms of returning to a degree of normality are carefully taken informed by all of the evidence and one step at a time.”
He reiterated his view that some form of Covid-19 preventative measures – such as the wearing of face masks – would continue to be required in wider society for some time to come after other restrictions are lifted.
On schools, he said the evidence showed that children do play a role in household transmission of the virus.
“That’s less likely for children under the age of 12, more likely for children over the age of 12, so the impact of returning primary schools is less than the impact of a return of children in secondary school,” he said.
The chief medical officer said the uncertainty around school returns was compounded by the Kent variant of Covid-19, which he said was 50% more transmissible.
“Therefore it is important that in a return to school that is phased and planned in a way in a stepwise process, so that at each phase we can estimate the impact and ensure that we can keep community transmission down, the R number down, before we then open up the next phase of return to school,” he said.
“And then that way we will get schools back in a sustainable way. I think the worst thing would be that we have children all back in school potentially and then see a very significant rise in community transmission, and that puts the whole thing back again.”