Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.
Up to 24,000 devices could be provided to pupils, including vulnerable and educationally disadvantaged learners, to equip them for the new reality of blended learning in schools in the next academic year, Education Minister Peter Weir revealed.
Minister Weir told the Northern Ireland Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee on the Covid-19 response that, subject to the medical and scientific advice, he was looking at a phased reopening of schools, beginning in late August for some key cohort years. However all pupils would be facing a mixture of attending some classes in school and undertaking online learning at home.
The Minister said: "Other than the current provision for children of key workers and vulnerable children, there will be no overall reopening of schools during the remainder of this academic year. Working alongside other Departments, we will explore what role the voluntary, community and private sectors can play in making some provision for our young people during the summer. Subject to medical guidance and safety, it would be my aim to see a phased reopening of schools, beginning with a limited provision for key cohorts in late August, followed by phased provision for all pupils at the beginning of September.
"This will not be a return to school as it was prior to Covid-19 but rather a 'new normal', reflective of social distancing and a medically safe regime. For all pupils it will involve a schedule with a mixture of school attendance and remote learning at home."
MLAs were also told that Northern Ireland's education system had been well positioned to provide remote learning from home. However Minister Weir said he was conscious some pupils were at risk of falling behind because they could not access the technology needed for education online.
He said: "In response, I have announced a scheme to lend devices to our educationally disadvantaged and vulnerable learners moving into key transition years. This involves a three stage process to the allocation of digital devices to children. Stage 1 - using existing school stock which is already being lent out. Stage 2 - using 3,000 new laptops which have been procured. Stage 3 - if needed, a further 4-8,000 additional devices will be bought. This could provide up to 24,000 devices to be lent to pupils over the coming months, according to need."
The Minister revealed he had also agreed a range of criteria for the lending of digital devices to pupils in need - prioritising pupils in Year Groups 11, 13, 6 and 3 who are eligible for Free School Meals, have Special Educational Needs, are in newcomer target groups, looked after children and children who are considered vulnerable.
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots today revealed DAERA-owned forests and country parks are currently being prepared for the phased lifting of restrictions on members of the public using them.
Minister Poots revealed his officials had been looking in recent days at the opening up of public spaces run by DAERA and other operators for walking, running, cycling and exploring nature reserves.
The Minister explained: “Our estate has been restricted to the public since late March in an effort to slow down the spread of Covid-19, but I am very aware of how much people have missed our outdoor spaces and doing the things they love like walking, cycling and running – the things that are good for our hearts and good for our minds. Therefore, I have asked my Department to make the necessary arrangements for DAERA-owned forests and country parks to gradually lift restrictions on a phased basis, starting with the reopening of car parks on Wednesday, 27 May. Following discussions facilitated by my Department, many other organisations, including councils, have now indicated that they too will begin to reopen their car parks at many of their sites on that date."
In the meantime, the Minister has asked people to park their vehicles responsibly and respect the decision to keep other amenities closed for now.
The Minister said: “Until car parks are reopened on Wednesday, I am urging people not to park on footpaths and verges. I am also asking people to be sensible about how far they travel once car parking is available, as other on-site DAERA facilities such as toilets, visitor centres, cafes or playparks will remain closed and their reopening will be considered at a later stage. I am taking these decisions based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence, the ability of the health service to cope and the wider impacts on our health, society and the economy.”
Minister Poots also gave his backing today to a UK-wide campaign encouraging members to support the dairy sector.
Following the launch of the 'Milk Your Moments' campaign, he said: "I am very proud to support the Milk your Moments initiative and my Department has contributed £20k to ensure that Northern Ireland’s dairy sector is also promoted. It is a very welcome campaign to help our dairy sector and enrich lives through online connections with those close friends and relatives who we haven’t been able to physically meet up or visit in the last couple of months. A warm cup of tea at a distance, or a shared latte on a video call, help us to connect with our loved ones and enjoy those quieter moments together."
In the wake of the lifting of some the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the Department of Health reminded members of the public to keep at the forefront of their minds the need to protect themselves against the Coronavirus.
Urging citizens not to become complacent, a Department of Health spokesperson stressed the importance of the public continuing to adhere to advice around hand washing and social distancing to curb the spread of the virus.
The spokesperson said: "The guidance in place is clear – good hand hygiene and social distancing are crucial elements in preventing the spread of the virus and helps to save lives. These are simple steps but no one should doubt for a moment the impact that they have. The Executive recently announced that people consider wearing a face covering in places where there are difficulties social distancing, such as on public transport or in retail environments. This advice was recommended by the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Strategic Intelligence Group. It is important to note that the wearing of face coverings is primarily to prevent the wearer inadvertently infecting other people, however there may be some weaker evidence of benefits for the wearer."
Notes to editors:
1. The Northern Ireland Executive is producing a regular digest of key initiatives and decisions that have been undertaken by ministers and their Departments relating to the Coronavirus crisis.
2. Members of the public are encouraged to check regularly the Public Health Agency, NI Direct, NI Executive and government departmental websites and social media channels for public health advice on how to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 Coronavirus.
3. The Coronavirus: Executive Approach to Decision-Making document, which outlines how the Executive is approaching key decisions relating to Covid-19 restrictions on society, is available on The Executive Office website - www.executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk/publications/coronavirus-executive-approach-decision-making
4. Current information and advice in relation to Covid-19 can be found on the PHA website at: https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/news/covid-19-coronavirus.
5. Patients who have a persistent cough, or high temperature, together with any other members of their household must self-isolate according to the guidance on the PHA website at: https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/news/covid-19-coronavirus#what-should-i-do-if-i-think-i-have-coronavirus.
6. The Department of Health NI has launched a new Covid-19 NI information app to provide people with immediate advice and links to vital trusted information. The app will be updated as the pandemic evolves. Download the Covid-19 NI app - search for Covid-19 NI on the Apple app store and Covid-19 NI on google play.
7. The online version of the app is hosted on a new website https://covid-19.hscni.net.
8. A Covid-19 statistical dash board can also be viewed on the Department of Health’s website at: https://app.powerbi.com/view?r=eyJrIjoiZGYxNjYzNmUtOTlmZS00ODAxLWE1YTEtMjA0NjZhMzlmN2JmIiwidCI6IjljOWEzMGRlLWQ4ZDctNGFhNC05NjAwLTRiZTc2MjVmZjZjNSIsImMiOjh9
9. The Framework for the Wellbeing of Health and Social Care staff can be accessed at the following link: www.publichealth.hscni.net/sites/default/files/2020-04/HSC_Regional%20Staff%20Wellbeing%20Framework.pdf and is based on evidence and best practice guidance and is informed by The British Psychological Society Guidance Paper.
10. Psychological Support Help Lines will be staffed by psychologists and psychological therapists who can provide appropriate support throughout the surge phase of the crisis.
11. The Helplines will be made available by each Trust to all their staff, to all GP Practices in their area, to all Ambulance staff based in their area and to all independent sector care providers in their area. In this way support is offered to all parts of the system throughout surge.
12. The Framework document is supported by resources which are available on the PHA website: www.publichealth.hscni.net/covid-19-coronavirus/guidance-hsc-staff/staff-health-and-wellbeing.
13. If you are in distress or despair at any time, including the Covid-19 crisis, the 24/7 Lifeline helpline is available on 0808 808 8000 where trained counsellors are available to help you.
14. Updated guidance for care homes is available on DoH website at: https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/publications/covid-19-guidance-nursing-and-residential-care-homes-northern-ireland
15. Anyone wishing to volunteer for health and social care support roles can do so via: www.hscworkforceappeal.co.uk/.
16. The Freephone Covid-19 Community Helpline can be accessed by telephone on 0808 802 0020; email firstname.lastname@example.org or text ACTION to 81025. It is available 7 days a week, 9am to 5pm.
17. Statistics on weekly deaths registered in Northern Ireland can be accessed on NISRA’s website at: https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/weekly-deaths.
18. Volunteer Now has launched a new online campaign #HelpEachOther for those who wish to volunteer for Covid-19 related opportunities and for those organisations which require the support of volunteers to deliver their services to the most in need. Further information is available at: www.volunteernow.co.uk.
19. A list of schools which are open for educational supervision is available on the Department of Education website: www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/schools-open-supervised-learning-key-workers-children-and-vulnerable-children.
20. A link to the guidance on schools clustering is available here: https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/guidance-schools-cluster-arrangements.
21. Forms for those applying to provide supervision to vulnerable children and the children of key workers can be accessed from the Department of Education website using the following link: http://apps.education-ni.gov.uk/appc19vol/default.aspx.
22. The online application form for small businesses that rent premises is available at: http://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/RentalPropertiesandNAVBelow1590.
23. Information on the full range of Covid-19 related support for businesses is available at: https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/campaign/coronavirus-updates-support-your-business.
24. A £100million rates relief package for businesses was announced on 17 March – https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk/news/covid-19-ps100m-emergency-rates-package-businesses. A copy of the Rates Relief Information policy advice for Minister can be obtained via https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk/publications/policy-advice-minister-rates-relief-information-paper
25. The Department of Education’s Covid-19 page will be updated later today to enable applications from eligible substitute teachers: https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/news/latest-department-education-updates-relation-covid-19-coronavirus.
26. Media enquiries should be directed to the relevant department using the following email addresses:
The Executive Office: Press.Office@executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk
Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs: PressOffice.Group@daera-ni.gov.uk
Department for Communities: Press.Office@communities-ni.gov.uk
Department of Education: Press.Office@education-ni.gov.uk
Department for the Economy: PressOffice@economy-ni.gov.uk
Department of Finance: email@example.com
Department for Infrastructure: Press.Office@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk
Department of Health: PressOffice@health-ni.gov.uk
Department of Justice: Press.Office@justice-ni.x.gsi.gov.uk
27. For out of office hours media queries, contact the Duty Press Officer on 028 9037 8110.