Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she does not support closing schools, colleges and universities at present. 

It comes after her partner in government, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill said she believes all education centres should be shut immediately, similar to what is happening south of the border.

Mrs Foster said she is following the advice of Northern Ireland's chief medical officer who does not recommend school closures at this time.

She said this strategy is also supported by Northern Ireland's health minister, Ulster Unionist Robin Swann.

Mrs Foster accepted that schools will have to be closed at some stage in the future, when further measures are necessary to try to flatten the peak of the disease.

She also said the UK's chief scientific officer stated today that once schools are closed, they will remain shut until the summer.

The coronavirus problem will be discussed at a special meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh tomorrow. 

Mrs Foster, Michelle O’Neill and Mr Swann will be among those representing the Stormont Executive.  They will have discussions with the Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris.

Mrs Foster accepted that a difference of opinion will emerge at that meeting but her approach is backed up by science. She said "just because we have a difference of opinion doesn't mean we can't have a conversation about the future.

She said "we may be taking different decisions at different times but we are both determined to protect our communities despite this difference of opinion we do want to work together and I hope by my attendance at the North South meeting that people will recognise that whilst I disagree with Michelle, we both want to work together to protect our people."

She said she lives in a border area and she fully understands the anxiety in the community when people in Lisnaskea see their children going to school while children in Clones are keeping their children at home.

Foster not briefed about Republic's coronavirus delay measures

Ms O'Neill had earlier changed her position on the need for schools and universities there to close as part of efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Last night she stood alongside Mrs Foster and agreed that such a move would be inappropriate based on medical advice given to the Stormont Assembly, but in a statement this morning, she changed that position.

She said the public was "really concerned" by the different approaches to coronavirus in Northern Ireland and the Republic, adding that now was the time to take action and that one approach was needed across the island of Ireland.

It comes as the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said nine new cases of coronavirus have been confirmed following the latest tests.

It brings the total number of cases in Northern Ireland to 29.

Around 80% of cases of Covid-19 will be a mild to moderate illness, close to 14% have severe disease and around 6% are critical.

Generally, you need to be 15 minutes or more in the vicinity of an infected person, within 1-2 metres, to be considered at-risk or a close contact.

The Public Health Agency is currently establishing if any of the new cases are connected to community transmission.

The Department said: "A total of 321 tests have been completed in Northern Ireland, in cases where people met the case definition for suspected coronavirus.

"A significant number of further tests have been carried out for surveillance and clinical purposes for example, for patients in intensive care and other hospital settings with respiratory symptoms."

Michelle O'Neill said: "I said yesterday at the press conference, that we needed to keep this situation under review and that remains the position. But as of today many European countries have taken decisive action, they've taken robust action, particularly in terms of large gatherings, but also in terms of school closures. 

"We have the situation now where in the south of Ireland, in Scotland and right across Europe outdoor gatherings of over 500 people have been cancelled and indoor gatherings of more than 100 people have been cancelled.

"I myself have spoken over the course of last night to many sport organisations and to many parents who are not sending their children to school today, to many people out there who are just very fearful about what is a very unclear situation across this island.

"People are rightly very concerned about the implications of Covid-19 for them and their loved ones.

Ms O'Neill said the fact that there was contradictory medical advice about the issue had created confusion for people trying to make the right decisions for themselves and their families.

"I believe that given that is the situation that we need to err on the side of caution," she said.

"I think we need to give people that surname, the reassurance they are looking for, in terms of a government approach.

"So I’m going to work with Executive colleagues, I will go to the North-South Ministerial Council meeting tomorrow, but it’s very clear in my mind that what we need to see is one approach across this island, one message that’s consistent, so as the public are not even more confused than what they are as we speak today."

Additional reporting: Vincent Kearney