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Masks in class and staff absence plans: UK

Masks are returning to UK classrooms and plans are being drawn up for the possible absence of up to a quarter of public sector workers as Omicron continues to spread across the country.

The moves come after a health boss warned the “next few days are crucial” in the fight to reduce the impact of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant, as NHS staff work “flat out”.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi acknowledged the variant “presents challenges”, but said the Government is taking steps to “bolster our support for schools” in an effort to minimise disruption when students return to their desks after the Christmas break.

Face coverings will return for secondary school pupils in England’s classrooms – having already been recommended in communal areas for older students and staff.

But the supply of 7,000 new air purifiers for areas of schools where good ventilation is difficult has been branded “completely inadequate” by NEU teaching union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted, who said that with “over 300,000 classrooms in England they (the Government) have failed to provide an effective solution”.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office said that although disruption caused by Omicron has so far been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”, leaders have been asked to test plans against “worst case scenarios” of 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 25 per cent workforce absence rates.

Boris Johnson has tasked ministers with developing “robust contingency plans” for workplace absences as the Government acknowledged high Covid levels could hit businesses hard over the coming weeks.

As the rollout of boosters continues, Health Secretary Sajid Javid hailed the delivery of 132 million vaccinations across the UK throughout 2021 as “astounding”.

Mr Javid argues restrictions on freedom “must be an absolute last resort”, but on Saturday NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the government “must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed”.

The most recent rules are set to expire six weeks after implementation, with a review after three weeks, which is expected on or close to January 4.

A further 162,572 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in England as of 9am on Saturday, a new record for daily reported cases in the nation.

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