Alliance and SDLP backs SF bid to recall Stormont Assembly amid Omicron surge

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The Alliance Party and the SDLP have backed a Sinn Fein bid to recall the Stormont Assembly over the latest Covid-19 surge.

Pat Sheehan has submitted a recall motion to see MLAs return early to discuss the reopening of schools amid soaring cases of the Omicron variant across Northern Ireland.

He said Education Minister Michelle McIlveen must present a clear plan for return to school to MLAs in the chamber.

Teachers’ unions have warned the return of children to the classroom will lead to a further increase in transmission and that members had concerns about contact tracing as well as staffing levels.

Earlier this week, Ms McIlveen said that her priority is to keep children in school and added that her department continues to liaise with the Department of Health as well as schools over Covid concerns.

Michelle McIlveen visit to primary school
Stormont Education Minister Michelle McIlveen (Liam McBurney/PA)

“The Omicron variant and rising cases is increasing the pressure on school staff.

“The Education Minister needs to come to the Assembly to set out a clear plan for schools returning which puts the safety of pupils, teachers and parents first and deals with the pressures on school staff caused by rising infection rate.”

The Assembly is due to return following recess on January 17.

It can be recalled from recess by either a motion to recall signed by 30 Members, or at the request of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Sinn Fein have 27 MLAs.

The Alliance Party and the SDLP have indicated they will back the bid, which will reach the 30 members needed.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan described a “dire situation developing in schools”.

“I have repeated the concerns expressed to me by school leaders and parents and despite multiple warnings nothing was done to mitigate the situation in schools,” he said.

“It’s only right that given the situation schools and their pupils are facing with their return this week that Minister McIlveen appears before the Assembly and explains exactly how this was allowed to happen?

“Time and time again we have seen principals left to make last-minute decisions on how best to protect pupils from the virus due to a lack of direction from the minister and her department.

“If we are going to keep our schools open safely we need to see a reserve list of teachers and education staff drawn up to replace those who are forced into isolation and a wide-scale review of the mitigations currently in place, including ventilation where we have seen significant movement in other jurisdictions, but continued foot dragging here.”

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said he wanted to see all pupils in schools, but provided it was safe – given the levels of the Omicron variant being experienced throughout Northern Ireland. 

“The priority is school-based learning for all our children and young people but that must be in a safe manner,” the Education Committee chair said.

“The Education Minister was asked at the Education Committee on December 17 what action she is taking to enhance ventilation in schools, as we know that has a major role to play in the fight against an airborne virus such as Covid.

“Urgent action is also needed from the minister to address the staff shortage crisis to cover the high level of staff absences being experienced across schools in NI. We also need clearer guidance from the department on whether large gatherings such as open days can proceed and what support there is if remote learning becomes a necessity.”

Health committee chairman Colm Gildernew said he has also asked if that committee can be recalled to hear from minister Robin Swann.

Mr Gildernew described the latest figures as “extremely concerning”.

He said the latest wave is presenting challenges across society in terms of staff absences in the health service as well as in schools.

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