Covid: Donaldson challenges Finance Minister to fund classroom filters as schools return

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has challenged Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy to commit to fund equipment to keep children safe in school amid the latest wave in the coronavirus pandemic.

Sir Jeffrey's DUP colleague, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, has been criticised because air filtration devices have not been supplied to schools.

The DUP leader told reporters in Co Fermanagh: "Our objective is to keep schools open and we are working with school principals... I spoke to the minister yesterday, the minister is working urgently on plans to provide air filtration and ventilation equipment to schools.

"That will come at significant cost, I note there is a degree of ambivalence from Sinn Fein, will the Finance Minister foot the bill for the enormous cost that there is going to be in providing that kind of equipment?

"It is a priority for us but we need to know that we're going to get the support of the finance department to cover the cost of providing schools with the equipment that they need to keep schools open.

"My challenge back to Sinn Fein is, 'do you want to keep schools open?', because we want to keep schools open and if you do then we need the Finance Minister to step up and provide the funding that the Education Minister needs to deliver the equipment that is required in classrooms to keep schools open during this pandemic."

The call comes amid concerns after the chief scientific adviser said a "substantial number" of children are likely to contract Covid-19 as pupils return to school.

Professor Ian Young also told MLAs that current daily Covid figures are no longer a reliable indicator of the rapid spread of Omicron as the prevalence of the virus is now surpassing testing capacity.

Prof Young was giving evidence to the Stormont Health Committee alongside chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride and Health Minister Robin Swann.

SDLP committee member Colin McGrath asked about the likely impact on infection numbers caused by the return of pupils to schools following the Christmas break.

Prof Young said: "Prior to Christmas, the largest number of cases were in under-18s.

"Once schools broke we have seen substantial increases, particularly in 18-30s, but also all other ages with the exception of under-18s, where case numbers, with schools off, remained relatively stable.

"So, it would be a major surprise if following the return of schools we don't see substantial numbers of cases in schoolchildren.

"Generally, it will be a relatively mild illness, with a small number of exceptions, but the rate of household transmission is very high with Omicron.

"Once a child becomes infected and is at home, there is a high risk of transmission to parents.

"I have no doubt that the return of schools will produce an upward pressure in terms of cases."

Professor Young also gave an update to the committee on the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

He said: "Case numbers are no longer a reliable indicator of progression of the epidemic in the community because we have reached a ceiling in terms of our capacity to detect cases, as has the rest of the UK and Ireland.

"The modelling suggested we would probably end up with in the order of 25,000 cases or so per day of the virus at peak. That is more than the tests which are available to us in terms of PCR.

"What happens to case numbers in the next week or two needs to be interpreted in that way.

"I expect that the number of cases of this virus will peak in the next couple of weeks and then should begin to decline after that.

"Hospital pressures will not peak until some time later."

Dr McBride was asked to predict how society would deal with Covid in the future.

He told MLAs: "There will always be new variants of the Sars-Cov-2 virus. This is a virus which is here to stay.

"What we will increasingly see is a transition from the pandemic stage, which we are living through now, to a stage where this virus is endemic and circulating.

"But the virus is here to stay and is going nowhere."