Stormont signs off on new Covid restrictions, but little clarity over exams

James Ward, PA
·3-min read

Strict new restrictions to combat the pandemic have been agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive.

Schools are to engage in remote learning until the mid-term break but there is no clarity on whether exams such as the A-levels and GCSEs will go ahead.

First Minister Arlene Foster said discussions on exams are ongoing with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, with a decision to be made by Thursday.

Coronavirus – Tue Jan 5, 2021
First Minister Arlene Foster speaking at a media briefing on coronavirus (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mrs Foster said the rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions were causing “grave concern”.

She added: “We confirm that all educational establishments will move to remote learning until the half-term break in the middle of February.

“It will be reviewed up the end of January. But we want to give those educational establishments the vision ahead into February. So, that is what is happening.

“That applies to primary schools, post primary schools and indeed to nursery schools as well.

“Childcare, however, will continue, even if that is in an educational setting. Childminders will be able to operate as well.”

Mrs Foster denied the Executive had failed to agree on a way forward for exams.

She said: “Our educational grading and our GCSEs and A-levels are very integrated into the wider UK system.

“There’s ongoing discussions with Gavin Williamson, secretary state for education in Westminster, actually the Executive have mandated our education minister to get clarity for these issues.

“By the end of the executive on Thursday, we will have complete clarity in relation to GCSEs and A-levels.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the decision to close schools was a reflection “on how serious the situation is” with the pandemic.

Coronavirus – Thu Dec 17, 2020
Deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill has announced new Covid-19 restrictions on Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

She said an Executive meeting could be held on Wednesday to discuss the issue in relation to exams and called on the Education Minister to bring forward proposals.

Childcare and special education schools are to remain open, the Deputy First Minister said.

Stay-at-home advice is to be put into legislation from midnight on Thursday, with additional powers being given to the PSNI to enforce the measures.

Household mixing will be reduced to just one other household or social bubble.

Speaking after the Executive meeting, Ms O’Neill said: “The message will be stay at home.

“This will provide additional powers to the PSNI, for example to be able to return people to their homes when they actually come out for reasons that are not allowed under the reasons that you can actually leave your home.

“There are also additional restrictions to household mixing. So, in private homes and gardens, both indoor and outdoor gatherings will be restricted to members of one household, or a member of your support bubble.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“There are obviously some exemptions that are for people who live in homes so those things will carry on.

“Outdoor and indoor gatherings will be restricted. The current position is that 15 people can meet outside that will be reduced to six people. Again, that’s a necessary intervention at this time.”

There is still little clarity on transfer tests for entry into grammar schools, which were initially cancelled only for the Association for Quality Education to announce they will hold a single exam in February.

An additional 18 deaths with Covid-19 were reported on Tuesday, the Department of Health said, while another 1,378 people have tested positive.

There are a total of 577 Covid-confirmed inpatients. The number of hospital beds occupied has increased to 542. The intensive care unit tally is 45.