Nine education unions have called on the Welsh government to give a “centralised, coherent response” to the reopening of schools following concerns about the new strain of coronavirus.
In a joint letter the unions say they “are at a complete loss to understand” how schools can begin a phased return of classroom learning from next week, after it was announced the Covid-19 variant was 70% more transmissible.
On Sunday, First Minister Mark Drakeford said the plan would be kept “under consideration” while the Government’s technical advisory group looked at all available evidence, but defended the “phased and flexible return” which allows schools to choose when they reopen based on the Covid situation in their area.
But later on Sunday the nine unions said they were “extremely frustrated” the plans to resume face-face learning between 11 and 18 January were being kept to, “despite increasing infection rates and pressure on the NHS.”
Their letter to the Welsh government said: “We strongly believe that we need to err on the side of caution and ensure, in advance, that we have the medical ‘evidence and information’ to ensure that any decisions are the correct ones.”
They added: “Given that all of Wales is in Level 4, we are of the opinion that there should be a centralised, coherent response from Welsh Government regarding all educational settings, rather than leaving decisions at local level.”
Protesters built a chain of beer glasses containing lit candles in central Prague on Sunday to challenge restrictions adopted to combat the Covid-19 spread.
The kilometre-long chain led from the government building to the historic Old Town Square, with glasses placed two or three metres apart.
“We are here because we are really desperate and at the end of our tether, physically and mentally,” protest organiser Jiri Janecek told AFP.
The manager of the Maly Janek small brewery south of Prague complained that the government was hurt the sector with its three restaurant closures since the Covid-19 outbreak last March.
“The government misfired with its restrictions and kicked off a far more lethal pandemic of poverty, unemployment, collapsing companies,” said Janecek, bemoaning paltry compensations for the business.
On the chilly, foggy Sunday afternoon, protesters lit candles and placed them in beer glasses handed out by the organisers, which they then put on the pavement.
Some carried Czech flags and the organisers put up a coffin with nails as a symbol of the looming death of their business.
“I don’t like the bans, the restrictions affecting our personal freedom, you cannot go anywhere, nothing’s going on. I don’t like this kind of life,” protester Veronika Musilova told AFP.
The new variant of the coronavirus, first spotted in the UK, has been detected in Greece, it was reported this evening.
Five Greeks and a Briton who tested positive for the virus upon arrival from the UK were found to have been infected with the new strain according to Skai radio. All have been quarantined in a hotel since flying into the country at Christmas.
The news came as the Greek Orthodox Churches’ governing body, the Holy Synod, was preparing to convene in emergency session following the government’s decision to re-close places of worship as part of strict lockdown measures re-imposed today.
Senior clerics are said to be enraged that churches will not be able to mark the Holy Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of Christ, on 6 January.
In a statement ahead of the Monday morning meeting, the Synod emphasised that over Christmas and the New Year, when places of worship had been permitted to stay open, all the foreseen health measures had been strictly observed.
The session was called by Greece’s spiritual leader Archbishop Ieronymos, who only recently recovered from coronavirus himself amid suggestions that bishops were pressing to defy the order. Epiphany, which officially marks the end of the Christmas holidays, is one of the most important religious festivals in the Greek Orthodox calendar.
Southampton city council has said it has “advised schools to prioritise education for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers” in cases where schools have staffing shortages due to Covid.
The council has clarified that there will be no fines at the moment for parents who wish to keep their children home due to concerns about Covid-19 and advised parents to check their school’s website directly for any updates.
Christopher Hammond, the leader of the council, said in a statement: “The government has not shown clear leadership and refuses to engage with headteachers’ and trade unions’ legitimate concerns.” He said that it was “becoming apparent” that not all schools would have sufficient teachers to reopen safely.
Hammond added: “Going forwards, we believe that teachers and support workers should be prioritised in the vaccine rollouts to enable children to return to classrooms safely.”
Ireland passes 100,000 cases
Ireland has reported a further 4,962 cases of Covid-19, taking the total number of cases past 100,000.
Sunday’s figure breaks the previous day’s record of 3,394 cases – itself almost double the highest number of cases previously recorded in 24 hours.
An additional seven coronavirus-related deaths were also registered, bringing the toll to 2,259.
South Africa is trying to get Covid-19 vaccines as soon as February, but the timing will depend on bilateral negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, the health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said on Sunday.
Mkhize added at a news conference that the government’s aim was to vaccinate a minimum of 67% of the country’s population of roughly 60 million people to reach herd immunity.
The leader of Cumbria county council, Stewart Young, said it was “disappointing” the government had rejected the local authority’s request for the county’s schools to stay closed on Monday and for the next two weeks.
Young said: “They have now responded and government have decided that for now Cumbria’s primary schools should reopen as planned.
“This is disappointing news and I feel that this is the wrong decision for Cumbria and for our families and communities. They have, however, committed to work with us next week to look again at the situation in Cumbria and together I hope we can agree additional measures that can be put into place to help manage the spread of the infection and therefore protect our residents and communities from this very challenging pandemic.
“The county council cannot instruct schools not to reopen. That is a decision for the governors of each school on the advice of their headteacher.
“I therefore give an assurance that any school in Cumbria that decides that at the present time they are only able to extend direct provision to vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and that they cannot open the school fully in line with government instruction, will have the full support and backing of Cumbria county council.”
The daily number of coronavirus cases in Turkey fell to 9,877 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases to 2,241,912 since the country’s outbreak emerged in March.
The number of deaths due to Covid-19 in Turkey fell to 193 in the last 24 hours from 202 a day earlier, falling below 200 for the first time since 6 December. The total death toll stands at 21,488.
Turkey has been in a four-day lockdown for the new year which will be lifted at 5am local time on 4 January. Ankara has also imposed curfews each weekday evening.
Italy reported 347 coronavirus-related deaths on Sunday compared with 364 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 14,245 from 11,831.
Some 102,974 swab tests were carried out in the past day, the ministry said, against a previous 67,174.
Italy has registered 75,332 Covid-19 deaths since its outbreak came to light on 21 February, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world. The country has also reported 2.155 million cases to date, the health ministry said.
Patients in hospital with Covid-19 stood at 23,075 on Sunday, up by 127 on the day before. There were 154 admissions to intensive care units, compared with 134 on Saturday.
Essex county council has become the latest local authority to issue a statement about school closures, announcing that primary schools in Uttlesford, Colchester and Tendring are to remain closed to pupils until 6 January.
The council tweeted that the decision had been taken to allow the council “to clarify the government position on primary schools in these areas reopening, given the rates of infection in these areas and pressures on NHS”.
The local authority said in a statement: “All schools in Essex at primary and secondary level will be either closed tomorrow (Monday 4 January) for a PD day, or will implement remote learning.
“Primary schools in Colchester, Tendring and Uttlesford were to reopen on Tuesday. Schools in these three districts were the only primary schools in Essex due to re-open, with the rest of the County’s primary schools remaining closed until Monday 18 January.”
Slough borough council has shared a statement confirming some schools in the area have decided they are unable to open due to “individual circumstances”.
The statement confirmed that “government advice and direction is primary schools in Slough will be reopening this week as expected”.
But it went on to say: “We are aware some schools have already made the decision, that due to their individual circumstances they are unable to open and they will be contacting parents directly.”
Councillor Martin Carter, lead member for children and schools, urged concerned parents to speak to their child’s school if they were considering keeping them at home.
“Parents of children who may be vulnerable will need to make individual decisions based on their own children and their own family circumstances,” he said.
“We understand this will be difficult, however we do ask any parent with concerns to speak to their child’s school to discuss safety measures in place before keeping their child at home when the school is open to them.”
Sir Keir Starmer has called on Boris Johnson to bring in a national lockdown in England within the next 24 hours, rather than hint he will do so soon.
Cumbria has asked the Department for Education (DfE) to allow it to keep primary schools closed on Monday.
The rural county is one of the areas outside London and the southeast hardest hit by the virulent new strain of Covid-19.
Colin Cox, the director of public health at Cumbria County Council, in a series of tweets, said: “Following extensive discussions over the last 48 hours, the CCC Exec Director (People) and I have this morning jointly written to DfE formally requesting that Cumbrian primary schools are added to the Contingency Framework of schools not expected to open tomorrow.
“Driven by the new strain, rates in Carlisle and Eden are now very high, and are rising fast in other parts of the county – rates in Barrow, Copeland and Allerdale are doubling every 4-5 days. And hospitals are under pressure.
“We don’t have the capacity in the NHS to respond easily to further increases in rates. So while primary children may not themselves be at high risk, we have to reduce opportunities for transmission wherever possible to protect the wider community.
“We await the DfE decision and either way will of course continue to support schools to enable children to learn safely.”
Hello, this is Clea Skopeliti – I’ll be running the blog for the next few hours. You can reach me via email if you spot a story you think I’ve missed.
Greece reported 390 new coronavirus infections and 36 deaths on Sunday as the government imposed strict new curbs for a week.
Today’s figures bring total cases to 140,099 while the death toll stands at 4,957.
The restrictions, announced on Saturday, will see businesses including hair salons and bookstores shut, while the night-time curfew will begin at 9pm – an hour earlier than before.
In a televised statement, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the measures were aimed at helping schools reopen on 11 January.
Egypt said on Sunday it had opened an investigation into the deaths of four Covid-19 patients in an intensive care unit allegedly due to lack of oxygen, which caused a public outcry.
“The prosecutor’s office in Al-Husseiniya [in the northern Sharqiya province] summoned the director of Al-Husseiniya hospital to question him over the deaths of four people due to lack of oxygen,” a judicial source told AFP, without specifying the dates of the deaths.
Since Saturday, numerous social media users had shared a video of patients in a hospital ward, with a voice heard saying “everyone is dead in intensive care”.
The prosecutor’s office confirmed the video was of Al-Husseiniya hospital, which was also identified in comments on social media.
The 45-second video also shows hospital staff apparently trying to revive patients.
That’s all from me. Clea Skopeliti will be taking over shortly.
Here’s my colleague Simon Murphy’s story on Starmer’s intervention:
Starmer: bring in new national restrictions immediately
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has urged Boris Johnson to bring in new national Covid restrictions in England within the next 24 hours, rather than hint that he will do so soon.
Starmer told reporters: “The virus is clearly out of control. And there’s no good the prime minister hinting that further restrictions are coming into place in a week, or two or three.
“That delay has been the source of so many problems. So, I say bring in those restrictions now, national restrictions, within the next 24 hours. That has to be the first step towards controlling the virus.”
On schools, Starmer said: “It is inevitable more schools are going to have to close. And the Government needs a plan on children’s learning but also for working parents.”
He went on: “The more important thing in a way is that national restrictions need to come in the next 24 hours. Let’s not have the prime minister saying ‘I’m going to do it, but not yet’, that’s the problem he has made so many times.
“Nationwide lockdown – the prime minister has hinted that that’s going to happen but he’s delaying again. And we can’t afford that again.”
Cyprus has discovered 12 cases of the new coronavirus variant in people who recently travelled from Britain, Reuters reported the health ministry as saying on Sunday.
The new highly transmissible variant – first found in the UK – is now spreading around the world. Of 19 positive tests for Covid-19 recorded on individuals who travelled to Cyprus from Britain between 6-20 December 6, 12 were for the new variant.
In Switzerland, the canton of Geneva said cases of the new variant had been detected in the area. “A few cases of the variant identified in the United Kingdom of the new coronavirus were identified in Geneva recently,” a press release said.
“It is very likely that there is community circulation of this strain in our canton. This means that the transmission of this new strain is active in Geneva and that, today, it is not just about imported cases.”
Thanks to reader Jaya John for pointing out the Swiss news.