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Taoiseach says he's ‘not entirely comfortable’ with children wearing masks in school

The recommendation was made by public health officials last week.

LAST UPDATE | 1 Dec 2021

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said the requirement that primary school children wear masks is not a rule he is “entirely 100% comfortable with”.

Micheal Martin said the new rules are “challenging” but there has to be “common sense, discretion and practical approach” applied to the requirements.

The Taoiseach’s comments come as the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) this afternoon defended guidance requiring children aged nine and over to wear face masks in indoor settings, insisting that the proposal is in line with advice from the State’s health watchdog.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan recommended the measure to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly last week, citing advice from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) and the level of Covid-19 infection among children aged 5 to 12.

The health watchdog, which occasionally advises NPHET on certain measures, met in August to discuss whether the minimum age for the wearing of face masks should be reduced.

However, Hiqa’s advice to NPHET in September said that “there should be no reduction in the minimum age for requirements… with respect to mask use in the community”.

“The potential benefits of a requirement or recommendation for children to wear face masks must outweigh concerns regarding potential harms associated with face mask use,” its report said.

The watchdog added that its advice should be “kept under review” and be informed by national and international data, and that existing Covid-19 measures – including those relating to in-school and after-school interactions – should be encouraged.  

But speaking at a NPHET media briefing today, Deputy CMO Dr Ronan Glynn defended the new guidance.

He said that HIQA had issued “a clear message” in its guidance that it should be kept under review by NPHET and revisited at a later date.

“The particular point they made, I suppose, was that if the epidemiological situation was to change significantly, that would need to be looked at again and ultimately dealt with,” Glynn said.

“So all of the scientific evidence and the background evidence is largely there from October and September. It changed very substantially between then and now.”

‘It is challenging’

In the Dáil this afternoon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was challenged by Labour leader Alan Kelly over the legal enforcement of the new regulations.

Martin said: 

“It is challenging, deputy. I appreciate that. It’s not a place I am entirely 100% comfortable with, as a person, as a parent, and as a former teacher myself.

“I’m very much alive to different situations in different schools. We have to be sensitive to all of that.”

Kelly asked whether school principals and boards of management will be legally protected when enforcing the wearing of face masks.

He said that children have a constitutional right to education and queried what legal protection schools would have to refuse children entry if they are not wearing masks.

“What is the legal basis for it and have you guaranteed that principals are legally protected here?” Kelly asked.

“If they refuse entry of a kid into school, are they legally protected by this state? Because I know that the PDF that went out had no signature on it and wasn’t on headed paper.”

Martin said: “In the middle of a global pandemic, where school principals and management are applying public health policy, they will be protected.”

Kelly also criticised the Government for how it communicated the new policy.

He said: “Surely there should have been a communications process whereby principals are engaged, unions are engaged with, and also children are engaged.

“There’s a huge difference from a development point of view between a nine-year-old and a 15-year-old.

“This can’t just happen overnight, and that’s what’s been asked.

“I understand the minister has now clarified that there are a couple of days grace, but ultimately this is mandatory and that is fine, but the communications process around it is frankly diabolical.

“Principals are left this morning at school gates wondering what they’re meant to do.”

Martin said that school management will know their community and how to engage with their community.

“Obviously, in terms of special needs children there won’t be a requirement if it is not suitable,” Martin added.

“I think there has to be common sense, discretion, practical approach to this.

“I think in the main there will be. Overall, we have to look at this as a collective society.”

This morning, Norma Foley, the Minister for Education,  said that she accepted that some children may struggle with wearing masks.

“I recognise that there may well be issues of exception, where there may be difficultly for a child in terms of wearing a mask,” Foley told Newstalk Breakfast.

“A child with complex needs, for example, or if a child has any difficulty with breathing or other relevant medical conditions, there will be exemptions and they will be very clear exemptions in that respect.

“But I also want to say that this operates at second level, it has operated seamlessly at second level.

“And again there has been extraordinary buy-in from all concerned”.

Contains reporting from Lauren Boland and Press Association

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