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New powers to prevent disease

Tougher measures are planned to help schools protect pupils and staff from those contaminated with radiation or infected by diseases such as bird flu.

Proposals, which the Department of Health has put out to consultation, would give local authorities wider-reaching powers to shut and disinfect schools at risk of an epidemic.

Laws dating back to Victorian times give local authorities and courts the power to act to prevent the spread of certain diseases, such as cholera, plague and smallpox.

The Government now proposes to update these laws to cover a wider range of illnesses, including bird flu.

Chemical and radiation poisoning are also to be included, with references in the proposals to the spread of radioactive polonium-210, the substance that killed Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security agent, in London last year.

The new powers would mean that local authorities could prevent a child from attending a school, nursery or creche "if he or she poses a risk to others". If other children's families need to be alerted, heads will have to give the council their addresses.

And authorities would no longer have to pay compensation to teachers and other adults unable to attend work because they were infected. They would not be able to force them to stay away from school, just recommend it.

However, magistrates would be able to decide on cases involving individual adults and order them to stay at home, to avoid contact with the elderly, or to wear face masks.

The maximum penalty for knowingly or recklessly putting others at risk or failing to comply with a requirement would be pound;5,000.

The closing date for comments on the proposals is June 25.

* Reviews of Parts II, V and VI of the Public Health Act can be found at www.dh.gov.uk

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