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Children aged nine and over to be asked to wear masks indoors in public on temporary basis

Cabinet minister met today to consider advice from NPHET on the current Covid-19 situation.

Image: Shutterstock/oasisamuel

CABINET HAS DECIDED that children from the age of nine will be asked to wear a face covering in certain public settings for the first time on a temporary basis.

Children aged nine and older will be advised to wear masks in particular indoor settings, including schools, shops and public transport, subject to a review in mid-February.

In schools, the measures applies to children in third class and older classes.

Advisories on masks will now be sent to schools, with a spokesperson saying that schools will have the discretion to introduce a rule whereby students can’t attend school without a mask. 

“It is understood that schools will take a practical approach over the next day or two to communicate the new measures to parents and ensure parents have the opportunity to provide masks to children,” a Department spokesperson said.

Cabinet ministers met today to discuss the current situation with Covid-19 and consider advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

They agreed that parents should aim to reduce socialisation indoors for children aged 12 and younger over the next two weeks.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the government’s aim is to “get to the Christmas break”, recalibrate, and review how it deals with the next term.

NPHET, he said, shared graphs with the government that showed Covid-19 cases among five to 11-year-olds going “through the roof”.

On his way into Cabinet this morning, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said: “The analysis we saw last night shows that it’s particularly high in nine, 10 and 11 year olds, and hence the recommendations for masks from third class.”

“The evidence we have suggests that they [masks] really have been very effective, for example, in secondary schools, so we’ll be discussing that this morning,” Donnelly said. 

As the incidence of the virus remains high, particularly among younger age groups, NPHET recommended to Government last week that face coverings should be worn by children aged nine and older.

Until now, children under the age of 13 have been exempt from mask requirements, with a few exceptions; some were asked to wear masks in healthcare settings, Covid-19 test centres, and if they were attending secondary school.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has said it is imperative for the government to communicate guidelines clearly to schools.

“We acknowledge the recent steps taken by NPHET and NIAC to provide up-to-date recommendations on several issues, including antigen testing, face masks and vaccination programmes, booster vaccines and children’s vaccines,” INTO said.

“We will look at the draft guidance on any additional measures including face-coverings decided by cabinet and seek to ensure our members are aware of any proposals put forward by government.

It is imperative that government communicate arrangements for any additional measures clearly and consistently to school communities. Similarly, it is essential that any guidance accommodates students with additional needs who, on medical grounds, will not be able to wear a face covering when in school.

‘Parents know their children best’

A government statement after the Cabinet meeting outlines that “parents know their children best and know the activities / experiences that matter most to them”.

“Therefore, parents are being asked to prioritise their children’s activities – minimising indoor community gatherings and indoor mixed household gatherings; reducing the risk of exposure to the virus by opting for outdoor activities instead of indoor; and reducing the number of children involved in any particular activity,” it says.

The statement says that the Covid-19 situation “remains uncertain and of concern, with added uncertainty due to the potential impact of the Omicron variant”.

“Incidence of the virus is relatively stable but remains at high levels across all age groups and is continuing to have a significant and sustained impact across all aspects of the health service.”

While there is some evidence of a move in the right direction in terms of people reducing their close contacts and cancelling future plans for social interaction, it is not yet at the level required in order to result in a significant reduction in the rate of transmission of Covid-19.

“This means that we need to remain vigilant and do all we can to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.”

Last week, the Tánaiste defended the government’s position that schools are safer for children than other environments, a message that has been repeated by ministers and health officials during the pandemic, though Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn claimed the day before that health officials “never said schools are safe”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Varadkar said that “there’s no place that’s 100% place in a pandemic other than having no contact with anyone ever”.

“But as far as places go, schools are safe,” he said, adding that he believes children are safer in schools than at someone’s house or an extra-curricular activity.

He said that NPHET and HIQA had been examining whether there were additional actions that could be taken in schools – “for example, primary school children being asked to wear masks”.

“[That is] something we haven’t wanted to do up to now because it’s very hard to ask young kids to do that, but it might be in their interest.” 

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) gave the green light last week for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be administered to children aged five to 11.

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The dose would be lower compared to older age groups and would be given as two injections in the upper arm.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee is now expected to advise on whether the vaccine should be offered to children in that age group in Ireland.

Travel

Other measures decided upon today include tighter travel restrictions to try to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant.

From Friday, travellers coming into Ireland will need to have either a negative PCR test from the previous 72 hours or a negative professionally-administered antigen test from the previous 48 hours.

The measure applies to people arriving at ports and airports from overseas, including from Britain.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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