Northern Ireland's policy of not closing schools despite the worsening coronavirus problem will be challenged at a meeting of the power-sharing executive at Stormont this morning.  

Sinn Féin and SDLP ministers want to immediately shut schools but DUP and Ulster Unionist ministers say they back the UK medical advice to keep them open for now.

In the Republic all schools closed last Friday. In Northern Ireland, the policy is to keep them open for now.  

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, her DUP colleague Education Minister Peter Weir, and Health Minister Robin Swann support that approach. 

They say they are guided by science and professional health advice. Ms Foster predicts that when that expert advice changes, schools will close and are likely to remain shut for 16 weeks or more.

On Thursday night, she had support from Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill for the current policy. But on Friday morning the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland changed her stance.


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The SDLP supports that shift. So does the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin and the teachers' union the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.

Some schools in Northern Ireland will not open their doors this morning.

A Co Armagh parent, whose daughter has a health condition, has asked a Belfast legal firm to challenge the official policy in the courts. 

The ministers resisting change can block the challenge at this morning's executive meeting. 

But the rising virus numbers may soon modify the expert advice. 

There have been 169 cases in the Republic and two deaths to date, with 52 cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

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.

Meanwhile, the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland has put in place arrangements to assist in dealing with the spread of the coronavirus.

Hospitals served by the Trust include Downe Hospital, Lagan Valley Hospital and Ulster Hospital. 

"In recognition of the expected rise in cases across NI, the Trust is down turning non-urgent activity. This will include non-urgent consultant-led outpatient appointments, day cases and inpatient and diagnostic work.

"This downturn will allow staff to focus on preparations and the training required to care for COVID -19 suspected and confirmed cases. It will also ensure that sufficient capacity is released to address any increase in demand for services.

Currently, only non-urgent outpatients, day case, inpatient and diagnostic services will be reduced. Any suspect cancer or urgent episodes of care will continue.

Patients whose appointments have been cancelled will have received a telephone call or a letter. If patients have not been contacted, they should attend their appointment as normal. The Trust will provide updates on its website and social media.

Additional reporting: Gail Conway