04/03/2020

Executive Urged To 'Step In And Cancel' School Ski Trips

The Northern Ireland Executive has been urged to "step in and cancel" school ski trips amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

SDLP Public Health Spokesperson Justin McNulty MLA has called for clear and unambiguous guidance and help from the Executive for schools with planned ski trips to Italy in the coming weeks.

Mr McNulty said: "As the coronavirus spreads across Europe and has now breached our shores it is crucial that we take measured and precautionary steps to protect our citizens. We have seen concentrated outbreaks of the virus in Italy and there are already two confirmed cases on this island and a further fifty-one confirmed in the UK.

"Just as Boris Johnston outlined his government's plans to deal with an anticipated rise in the number of cases across the UK my office was contacted by a number of parents of pupils in my own constituency who are due to travel on school organised ski trips to Italy in the coming weeks. Parents have paid upwards on £1,000 per pupil to take part in school organised trips. Parents are justifiably concerned about whether or not it is advisable to allow their children to travel abroad to countries and regions already impacted by coronavirus.

"School leaders are crying out for definitive guidance and for support. One principal said she has been in contact with eight different agencies and departments on this issue in recent days. Everyone is passing the buck and offering schools advice that amounts to little more than 'wash your hands.' Or better still, the advice has been 'it's up to you, you make the decision!''
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"This is not acceptable. We need to adopt a whole school, whole family, whole community approach here. I would question the wisdom of allowing between 40 – 150 pupils from a single school to travel to a high risk region which has already a confirmed outbreak of the virus or even to regions that are close by. The young people or their accompanying staff may well return from Italy and to school with no initial symptoms. However, within days there is a possibility that one, two or possibly more pupils and staff may start to experience symptoms. Then the implications are much more widespread and could create a sense of panic within school communities, within families and within communities. Schools will be closed, communities will be isolated and quarantined, and the people who are most vulnerable will have their lives put at risk.

"This situation needs thought through and thought out. It's not about causing hysteria or over hyping the issue. It's about taking reasonable and practicable precautions. I don't believe individual schools or their principals should be put in the situation where they have to take independent decisions. The Department needs to step up and step in. I appreciate many young people will be really excited about their travel and are so looking forward to these trips. However, this could literally become a matter of life and death and therefore serious consideration should be taken by the Department to directing that schools with plans to travel to high risk regions or nearby regions be cancelled without delay.

"Principals have sought advice, and they are very wary about the risks of travelling. Their instinct is to cancel trips, but in the absence of official advice not to travel from the Public Health Agency or the Foreign Office the financial burden then falls on the schools. This is not a risk our principal's should feel burdened with in these extraordinary circumstances. In any other area of the public sector this would come down to a Ministerial Decision.'

"We need a whole Executive approach to this. It would cost less for the Executive to cancel these trips and cover the refunds than it would to deal with a crisis involving containment, isolation, quarantine, deep cleaning and Public Health Emergency in one single school community. It's time to get real, be cautious and be sensible."

(MH/CM)

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