Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Covid-19: New Measures: Statements


5:57 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)

I will focus my comments on the situation in schools. We have 600 teachers who tested positive for Covid in the first two weeks of November and 10,000 primary students absent from school for Covid-related reasons. In fact, one school in Cork has 100 students who have contracted Covid since mid-term out of a school population of just 765. Why? It is clear that the Government moved to reopen society too quickly and bowed again to business interests on that front.

I do not have time to drill down into that. I will focus on mistakes I believe have been, and are being, made in the schools and need to be corrected. We have a school population of approximately 1 million people. There are 3,000 primary schools and 1,000 secondary schools, with a population that is indoors for the vast bulk of the day at a time when we are combating a disease that is mainly airborne.

The question of ventilation is clearly key. I have been following the comments of Professor Orla Hegarty from the UCD department of architecture who seems to be very sharp on these issues. She has calculated that we would be able to provide best possible defences for the school population, with ventilation measures, for approximately €12 million or approximately €10 per child. That would not just mean keeping the windows open or sharing CO2 monitors but having monitors for every classroom and, crucially, not having just a few HEPA filters but a HEPA filter in every single classroom in the State, which is the position in Germany and a million miles from the position in this State. The situation here needs to change.

In Scotland, Greece and France, for some time now, there has been antigen testing on a twice-weekly basis of the entire school populations. The test kits are sent out to families and they are asked to conduct tests on a Monday and Wednesday. It is not a perfect system - screening systems are never perfect - but it is a good one and way ahead of the position in this State on antigen testing in schools. It seems this is an example that could and should be followed.

I have spoken before about contact tracing and I will not spend much time on it now. It was a serious mistake to scrap the test and trace system in schools. We only have to look at the current case numbers among primary school children to show that was a mistake and one that needs to be fully and completely rectified.

As I have only a short time to speak, I will comment on two issues we will need to deal with going forward, namely, the wearing of masks at primary level and vaccination at primary level. Mask wearing operates in primary schools in France. It seems to work quite well, but seems to be off the agenda for the Government here. That issue needs to be revisited as there would be real advantages in doing that.

Vaccines have been approved for under-12s in the United States. In Europe, we are awaiting a decision from the European Medicines Agency, EMA. If it makes a positive decision, the Government must not look around this way and that way asking what we should do now. The bones of a plan need to be in place in order that we are able to move very quickly on that issue and not pushing it back unnecessarily deep into the new year when a start could be made at an earlier point.


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