Shops and pubs could be closed to allow schools to remain open where clusters of coronavirus arise, a government insider has claimed.
Under new plans reportedly being drawn up by Boris Johnson, pubs, restaurants and even shops would close before schools in the event of severe local lockdowns, a Downing Street source told the PA news agency.
"The PM has been clear that businesses including shops, pubs and restaurants should be forced to close first, with schools remaining open for as long as possible," the source said.
"The PM has stressed that the harm done to children's education prospects by not attending school as well as to their mental health is far more damaging than the low risk posed, which schools will be carefully managing, and that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are suffering the most."
It comes as Johnson said there is "a moral duty" to get all children back in class and warned the government would only close schools as a last resort.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, the prime minister said it was the "national priority" to get all pupils back into classrooms in September after months without in-person education.
"This pandemic isn't over, and the last thing any of us can afford to do is become complacent," he wrote.
"But now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so."
He warned of the "spiralling economic costs" of parents and carers being unable to work.
"Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible,” Johnson added.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said this week that the government cannot "decree" that classroom education would be prioritised, instead saying decisions would be made by local health chiefs.
He told the BBC all children would be returning next month including in areas hit by local lockdowns, which currently includes Preston, Greater Manchester, Leicester and parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
"But you can't decree this for every single case and it will depend on the circumstances of a local increase in the infection rate, and that is why it is being led by the director of public health in localities. But we want all children back in school," he added.
Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has warned the nation has "probably reached near the limit or the limits" of what can be done to reopen society safely.
And Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the decision to impose the lockdown, suggested ministers would need to "row back on the relaxation of restrictions" to allow a full-time return to schools while keeping the virus under control.