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alarm bells Fears mutated South African Covid variant will spread into North

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Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Health chiefs are fearful the highly contagious South African variant of Covid will transmit to Northern Ireland.

The arrival of the new variant in Ireland has set alarm bells ringing north of the border as infections continue to soar.

There had been concerns about the so-called ‘English’ variant discovered in the wake of Christmas and said to be 70 per cent more infectious, but the South African bug is said to be even more transferrable.

It is believed the virus was carried home by people travelling to Ireland from South Africa.

The outbreak has prompted fresh speculation about the British and Irish Lions rugby tour to SA scheduled for July.

With the discovery of a new variant the South African government is reluctant to open its doors to thousands of rugby fans travelling from Europe.

The Republic’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan confirmed the cases.

“Three cases of a new variant of Covid-19 recently identified in South Africa have been confirmed in Ireland today by whole genome sequencing,” he said.

“All of the cases identified are directly associated with recent travel from South Africa.

“Anyone who has travelled from South Africa recently is advised to self-isolate for 14 days and identify themselves through a GP for testing as soon as possible.

“We are particularly advising healthcare workers travelling from South Africa, that it is essential that they self-isolate for 14 days before entering/re-entering the workplace.

surveillance

“While this variant has not yet been identified in many European countries we believe the identification here reflects the extent of genome sequencing surveillance in Ireland.”

Yesterday there were nine further deaths in Northern Ireland in the past 24 hours and 1,443 new cases.

The news of the new strain comes as Health Minister Robin Swann underlined the ‘stay at home’ message north of the border.

There have been calls in the south for the reintroduction of ‘regional curfews’ and should infection rates continue to rise there will be calls for similar action in Northern Ireland.

In other developments there are fresh fears for families whose children rely on school meals after it was confirmed there will be no school meals for vulnerable children or children of key workers attending many schools in the North until mid-February.

Transport is also to be limited with only those who request it being taken to school.

The guidance was issued by the Education Authority (EA) on Friday.

The Department of Education (DE) also confirmed that the Executive has been asked to prioritise school staff for vaccination.

Only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers are able to attend nursery, primary and post-primary schools until the February mid-term break.

Special schools remain open to all pupils, and meals and transport for them will continue.

The DE has said it is now a legal requirement for schools to provide remote learning to all pupils.

But many schools expect that a significant minority of pupils will be eligible to attend in person.

But on Friday the EA told schools in Northern Ireland that meals would not be provided for pupils who attend.

Instead they must bring a packed lunch, though schools have been told that they can put catering staff “on call” if a pupil turns up without one.

The BBC reported that one principal told parents catering staff had prepared menus for the coming week.

“We now have to ask vulnerable and key worker pupils attending from this Monday to bring a packed lunch until further notice.”

However, payments will be made to families whose children are entitled to free school meals.

Mainstream schools have also been told that if they want transport for pupils who can attend they will have to request it from the EA.

Meanwhile, in a separate letter from DE, schools were told that Education Minister Peter Weir has asked the executive to prioritise vaccinations for all staff who are in face-to-face contact with children and young people.

priority

The letter said first priority is “to be given to staff within special schools given the physical contact required there, followed by any other education staff engaging with children”.

Post-primary pupils will be expected to wear facemasks in classrooms

“It is expected that teaching and/or non-teaching staff will supervise and support vulnerable and key worker children in engaging with the remote learning tasks and activities provided to all pupils,” DE said.

“Younger children and some children with statements of Special Educational Needs will clearly require a greater degree of support and assistance to engage meaningfully. In this way, the experience of vulnerable and key worker children will broadly mirror the experiences of their peers learning at home.

“Classroom assistants who provide support to children with statements should continue to support these children – directly for those who attend school and remotely where they are at home.”

The last-minute instructions come at the end of a week of confusion over AQE tests with a number of prominent grammar schools announcing they will not require prospective pupils to take part in the postponed test set for the end of February. The confusion has prompted calls for Mr Weir to resign.

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