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Ireland school closures reveal stark contrast to UK Covid-19 response | World news

Ireland is shutting schools, colleges and childcare facilities to delay the spread of coronavirus in contrast to the UK which is keeping education institutions open, exposing a stark divergence in response to the crisis.

Irish authorities said the shutdown would begin at 6pm on Thursday and last at least until 29 March as part of a series of restrictions, including a ban on mass gatherings, that will be kept under review.

The unprecedented closures put pressure on Boris Johnson to follow suit – or to explain the decision to keep schools open . The British prime minister was due to give a press conference later on Thursday after a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency committee.

Asked earlier about Dublin’s announcement, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We follow our own advice, they will do the same.”

The prospect of diverging responses caused consternation on both sides of the Irish border and prompted calls for a joint strategy on the island of Ireland.

Daniel Baker, the lord mayor of Belfast city council, said it will seek guidance from the Northern Ireland Executive and Public Health Agency.

Unionists, who usually prefer to follow London than Dublin, disagreed over whether the threat of coronavirus justified an all-Ireland approach.

The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced the partial lockdown at a hastily arranged press conference in Washington DC before meeting Donald Trump for a traditional eve of St Patrick’s day meeting.

“I know that some of this is coming as a real shock,” he said. “And it’s going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives. And I know that I’m asking people to make enormous sacrifices. But we’re doing it for each other.”

All indoor gatherings of 100 people or more and outdoor gatherings of 500 or more should be cancelled, Varadkar said. State-run cultural institutions will close but public transport will still run.

The lockdown is not as drastic as Italy’s. Shops, cafes and restaurants will remain open, as will airports and ports. Travellers with Covid-19 symptoms are being asked to self-isolate.

The taoiseach said he was acting on the latest medical advice. “The virus is all over the world, it will continue to spread but it can be slowed. Acting together as one nation we can save many lives. Our economy will suffer but in time it will bounce back.”

Ireland recorded nine new infections on Wednesday, raising its number of cases to 43. It also reported the first death, an elderly woman with an underlying medical condition. Northern Ireland on Thursday recorded two new cases, bringing its total to 20.

The prospect of diverging strategies on school closures prompted criticism that authorities were acting as if coronavirus would respect the 310-mile border between the north and south of Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, told Stormont’s health committee that deaths should also be expected in Northern Ireland but that so far it was not “in the same place” as the republic of Ireland. “Our approach is different as there are no signs of community transfer.”

Other unionists disagreed. “Since coronavirus doesn’t give a damn about borders or identities it makes sense for NI to follow immediately,” tweeted Alex Kane, a unionist commentator.

Jamie Bryson, a loyalist blogger, said Northern Ireland had to recognise it shared an open land border with Ireland. “Regardless of the rights or wrongs of that open border, it is a reality. We face a health crisis that could result in deaths of many people. It is sensible to coordinate the approach between both jurisdictions.”

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