When schools shut in Northern Ireland over coronavirus it will be for at least 16 weeks, Arlene Foster has said.
The first minister was speaking after a meeting between senior ministers from the NI Executive and Irish government.
Health officials have confirmed five new positive cases, bringing the total number in Northern Ireland to 34.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill repeated her call for NI schools to shut immediately, in line with the Republic of Ireland.
But the taoiseach (Irish PM) said the main differences between the governments were over timing.
Leo Varadkar said the Northern Ireland Executive and Irish government shared the same objective in slowing the advance of coronavirus.
Ms O’Neill first called for schools to close immediately on Friday, a day after she, along with First Minister Arlene Foster, said the executive did not believe the situation had reached that stage.
On Saturday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also called for schools to close, after Archibishop Eamon Martin, the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, wrote to NI’s education minister to ask him to consider closures.
Speaking after the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh on Saturday, Mrs Foster said: “At some stage in the future, when we are advised on the medical evidence, they will have to close the schools.
“Children will be at home for quite a considerable period of time, given that when we do close the schools they will be closed for at least 16 weeks.
“Then of course you are into the summer period, so they will be off school for a very long time.”
Ms O’Neill said all parties in the executive agreed schools would have to close but it was a matter of timing.
She said: “In my opinion schools should close now. I think we need to be consistent across this island
“I think the fact that you can have two schools a mile apart and one school’s open and one school’s closed that’s a very confusing picture and a very confusing message for the public.”
‘No difference in objective’
Mr Varadkar said it was inevitable there would be differences in how the executive and Irish government approached the spread of coronavirus.
He added: “But the differences that exist are mostly around timing.
“What there isn’t any difference about is our common objective, which is to slow down this virus in its tracks and push it back as much as possible and limit the harm to human health and human life.”
Mrs Foster said both governments had “very coherent messages”.
Three of nine new cases were contracted in this way. The total is now 29.
There have been 90 confirmed cases in the Republic of Ireland.
Health Minister Robin Swann, Tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) Simon Coveney and Irish Health Minister Simon Harris also attended the meeting.
The council was established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald – who was not at the meeting – said the UK’s response to coronavirus “should be rejected” and is “totally unacceptable in the north of Ireland”.
In other developments on Saturday:
- Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Cathy Harrison said people should order prescriptions and take their medicines as normal
- Jet2 cancelled all flights to Spain
- Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said planning restrictions would be relaxed to allow supplies to be delivered to shops outside of authorised hours
Delivery restrictions relaxed
Mrs Mallon’s decision to relax planning conditions to allow more flexible delivery times has been welcomed by retail and freight experts.
Ms Mallon wrote to local councils on Saturday informing them of the change, which will allow more frequent deliveries of food and other essential items to shops.
Under existing rules, deliveries are not allowed at certain times to minimise disruption to those living near shops.
Several shops have introduced sales restrictions on certain items, including anti-bacterial gels, to avoid selling out completely as consumers seek to stock up.
The director of the Northern Ireland retail consortium Aodhán Connolly welcomed the move saying it “helps supply”, but urged people to buy responsibly.
Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association said it was “welcome news” which would ensure shops had enough of what they needed.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Business programme Mr Leheny added he has also asked for a temporary relaxation on rules surrounding working hours for delivery drivers.
‘No prescription medicine shortages’
In a statement on medical supplies, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Cathy Harrison said: “Extra supplies should not be ordered from your doctor.
“Stockpiling or purchasing medication that you do not need is completely unnecessary and could disadvantage other patients.
“There are no prescription medicine shortages as a result of Covid-19.”
On Friday, Health Minister Robin Swann said non-urgent health services in Northern Ireland are to be reduced in order to care for coronavirus patients.
Affected services that are to be scaled back include non-urgent outpatient appointments, day cases, inpatient and diagnostic work.
The cancellations and postponements will be phased in over the coming days and weeks.
Jet2’s decision affects all flights to Spain, including the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands.
It operates flights from Belfast International Airport to Alicante, Ibiza, Majorca, Malaga, Reus, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
The airline has also cancelled its flights between Belfast and Malta, in addition to flights to Cyprus, Italy and Austria which had already been suspended.