TAOISEACH Micheál Martin has insisted the Government will work with school managers, teachers and teacher unions to help schools reach the Christmas break despite the challenges posed by the latest wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
r Martin insisted that all public health evidence given to the Government is that the virus was being spread in communities and then brought into schools instead of vice versa – but would not be drawn on the possible reintroduction of contact tracing in classrooms.
The Taoiseach said the antigen testing regime being rolled out next week will greatly help schools – and said he favours the provision of the new Covid-19 juvenile vaccine for those aged between five and twelve years.
Canada is already rolling out the juvenile jab.
The Indo Daily: It’s beginning to look a lot like Lockdown?
However, Mr Martin acknowledged that already if the European Medicines Agency (EMA) ratifies the jab next week it is doubtful it will be rolled out in Ireland for youngsters before Christmas.
His comments came as the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) demanded the immediate restoration of public health supports removed last September including contact tracing in schools.
INTO boss John Boyle pointed out that the number of children aged five to 12 years contracting the virus has trebled since September.
“The Chief Medical Officer (Dr Tony Holohan) and public health advice has been consistent on that point in terms of the disease being generated within the community and being brought into the schools,” the Taoiseach said as he planted a tree at Terence MacSwiney Community College in Cork. Speaking on RTÉ this morning, Dr Holohan also again insisted that this was the case.
“That has been the consistent message. The antigen testing regime will come into place next week and that will be of assistance to schools,” the Taoiseach said.
“We will do at all event else we have to do to sustain teachers, to sustain principals and the management of schools to get by this pandemic and to get by this phase of the pandemic.
“We have a number of weeks left to the Christmas period and I think we can work together to ease the learning for children and students in our education system and in childcare in addition.”
He said he would speak later with the Education and Training Board and had brought in a number of measures to ease difficulties schools are having in finding substitute teachers to cover increasing absences.
He said the Government would follow Nphet and HSE advice on schools.
“The balance has always been the absolute importance of children being in school for their development,” he said.
“With a very useful heavy heart we had to close schools in the earlier phases of the pandemic.
“That is not good for children and it is not good for young people.”
The Taoiseach additional: “Part of the concerns in public health more recently was the RSV virus and other viruses that children were picking up. That caused more admissions to hospitals of children than Covid-19 did.
“We are conscious of the concerns and we will work with the partners and deal with it then.”
Mr Martin said he personally supported the roll-out of the juvenile vaccine, which has been approved by US authorities and which is awaiting approval by the EMA, but he did not think Irish under-12s would get it before Christmas.
“You’re not looking in terms of an immediate administration of that because of the fact that it would be a different operation – you are looking at much lower quantity of vaccine for children compared to adults but it’s something on the horizon and on the agenda,” he said.
“But again it’s all in the context of the advice we will receive. Before Christmas? I’m not so sure it could happen before Christmas given what would have to be done organisationally and logistically to put it together.”
He again urged those who had not in addition got a vaccine to get one, and said we should soon see an impact from the booster jab campaign in hospitals.
“I would popularity to those who are not in addition vaccinated to really mirror on it, to get vaccinated to to protect yourself and your loved ones and then anybody who gets notified about a booster, please take up the booster as quickly as you can,” he said.
Mr Martin also acknowledged the challenges faced by the virus testing sector.
“We should all concede the extraordinary capacity that we have build up in PCR testing – it’s one of the strongest across Europe – it was 200,000 tests last week,” he said.
“What you are reflecting there is the spread of the disease and symptoms and so forth – we will continue to work to increase PCR testing but it has grown enormously.
“I can ingemination similar comments this time last year and people saying you must get to 100,000 capacity – we are at 200,000 now in doing PCR testing.
“That’s been supplemented by antigen testing because there has been an expansion of antigen testing in terms of close contacts, in terms of serial testing in meat plants and nursing homes and in terms of higher education and so forth – PCR is the gold standard and we will continue to work to increase capacity.”
The Taoiseach refused to be drawn on speculation about another lockdown in Ireland but insisted the country was in a very different place compared to this time last year.
“We are in a different phase of the pandemic so the response doesn’t necessarily have to be similar to the response of the past when we didn’t have mass vaccination, for example,” he said.
“So we have overall a very high rate of vaccination which is protecting the population to a huge extent from having to be admitted to hospital or to ICUs or from harsh illness.
“We are conscious that the decisions last week have resulted in a lot of cancellations in hospitality and we are very conscious of that and that has had an impact. So we will estimate all of that this evening.
“In relation to the pandemic unemployment payment again that has come away way down to about 60,000 from about 600,000 because of the reopening of the economy and the reopening of society.
“Now within hospitality itself there has been a lot of commentary and feedback over the last two months that there are shortages within hospitality itself so we will do an assessment as to whether hospitality can absorb any staff that may not be fully retained in the nighttime economy because of measures we have taken.”
“So that’s something we will estimate in addition but as things stand the feedback has been one of a lot of vacancies in the hospitality sector and challenges in terms of recruiting staff. That’s the balance that has to be weighed up in that regard.”
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