All schools in Wales to close by Friday but childcare settings will remain open for now

All schools in Wales will close for an early Easter break by Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Welsh Government has announced.

Schools will be re-purposed in order to help “people in need” as well as those “involved in the immediate response” to the outbreak, while plans will be drawn up on how to manage pupils with forthcoming exams.

The announcement came after the Welsh Government and the country’s chief medical officer repeatedly said on several occasions that there was not a “scientific case” for closing schools.

Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams (pictured) said: “I can announce we are bringing forward the Easter break for schools in Wales. Schools across Wales will close for statutory provision of education at the latest on March 20.

“I have been clear up to now that the continuity of education and the wellbeing of our learners has been at the heart of my decision making. This will always be the case.

“From next week, schools will have a new purpose. They will help support those most in need, including people involved in the immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak.”

Ms Williams said the Welsh Government is looking into how children who receive free school meals and those with additional learning needs can still be supported, and said parents should speak with their usual childcare providers for care over the extended break.

She said childcare settings will remain open until the chief medical officer and Public Health Wales advise they should close.

The Welsh Government is said to be working with exam board WJEC and Qualifications Wales to clarify what the school closures mean for pupils with forthcoming examinations including GCSEs and A-levels.

Ms Williams added: “From the outset, the decisions being taken have been focused on public health advice, and it is right that these science-based recommendations are front and centre of the decisions being made.

“Today’s decision will help ensure an orderly closure, so schools have time to prepare ahead of the early break.

“My main message for everyone is to stay safe and stay well. We will work together and we will face this outbreak together.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Public Health Wales said a further 13 people had tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 149 – though it said the true number is “likely to be higher”.

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething, who is self-isolating at home after his son developed a cough, said there will be a need to discuss supporting local authorities with burial services should they become unable to cope with mortality rates in a worst-case scenario.

He told the National Assembly’s committee for health, social care and sport via videolink: “If we really are seeing a level of mortality which means the normal process can’t cope, then we’d have to make changes.

“And the initial part could be about increasing storage of the deceased and how else for local authorities to acquire places to store bodies.

“And then we have to consider what that means in terms of burial or disposal and whether it’s possible that single disposal may not be possible at the top end of the regional worst case scenario.

“It’s one of the most difficult things that we may face if coronavirus does get towards the top end of the regional worst case scenario.”

Wales’s Chief Medical Officer also told a press conference that isolation and social distancing measures are “proportionate” to delay the coronavirus outbreak.

Dr Frank Atherton said the steps would buy time for the NHS and allow preparations to be made for social care.

He told the press conference in Cardiff: “There is a huge amount of work going on to prepare the NHS, to prepare social care for this, but we need to buy some time.

“The message to everybody now is these measures are proportionate, they are guided by the science and everybody needs to take account of them.

“It’s no longer appropriate for people to be gathering in large groups.”

Dr Atherton said around 70,000 people in Wales are “particularly vulnerable” and he expects further measures to protect them to be announced later this week.

He also said the issue of closing schools was “kept under constant review” and that priority testing of healthcare workers for Covid-19 was also being discussed, with the potential for it to extend to the police and fire service.

He said: “We need to keep our essential staff in work where possible.

“We’re already seeing that the measures announced this week are removing people from the workforce.

“So we are actively looking at processes to test healthcare workers.

“In fact, I issued some guidance yesterday to the health system as to who should have priority for testing so that we can make sure that essential healthcare staff are brought back quickly into the workforce if that’s appropriate.

“I absolutely recognise that that process, as we ramp up our testing capacity in Wales and across the UK, that process needs to extend beyond healthcare into social care in particular and into schools in particular as well.

“There are other sectors – police, fire and rescue – that we also need to think about. This will affect all aspects of the public sector and beyond.”

Dr Atherton said it is now assumed the virus is “circulating widely” in the community, but “well over 80%” of cases in Wales have had a mild form and have recovered or are recovering.

He also said plans are under way to double Wales’s number of critical care beds, of which there are currently about 150.

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