Boris Johnson faces Tory pressure over school closures

David Hughes, PA Political Editor
·5-min read

Boris Johnson should consider tougher lockdown restrictions on the economy in order to allow schools to reopen, the chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee said.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon’s call for action to get pupils back in classes added to mounting Tory unrest about the issue and the Government’s exit strategy from coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Johnson said teachers and parents would be told “as much as we can as soon as we can”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is widely expected to confirm this week that there will be no return to the classroom after the February half-term break as ministers had hoped.

Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is shown the distribution operation for sending the Oxford/Astrazeneca coronavirus vaccine out to local clinics during a visit to Barnet FC’s ground at The Hive, north London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Ministers believe that infection rates and pressure on the NHS need to come down further before the move can be considered, with no guarantee that classes will resume before Easter.

Mr Johnson, on a visit to a vaccination site at Barnet Football Club in north London, said: “Daily we’re looking at the data and trying to work out when we’re going to be able to lift restrictions.

“Schools obviously will be a priority but I don’t think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infection.

“We’ve now got the R down below 1 across the whole of the country, that’s a great achievement, we don’t want to see a huge surge of infection just when we’ve got the vaccination programme going so well and people working so hard.

“I understand why people want to get a timetable from me today, what I can tell you is we’ll tell you, tell parents, tell teachers as much as we can as soon as we can.”

Mr Halfon said: “It may be that one thing the Government should consider is that even if there are tighter restrictions in other parts of our society and economy, you have those restrictions in order to enable the schools to open.”

He has called for a minister to be summoned to the House of Commons to explain the Government’s approach.

“The Government said that the intention was to open the schools again after the February half-term – over the weekend in the newspapers it was indicated that the schools now won’t open until Easter, so that’s why I’m urging clarity for parents, children, teachers and support staff as to what the Government plans are because there’s enormous uncertainty,” he told the BBC.

Mr Halfon hit out at ministers for placing a lower priority on children’s education than the economy.

“I want the engine of Government to be directed towards opening our schools again,” Mr Halfon told Times Radio.

Robert Halfon
Robert Halfon (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

“For the Government to place as much importance on schools and colleges as they do on the economy and the National Health Service.”

The pressure on Mr Johnson and Mr Williamson over schools is just one aspect of the wider unease on the Tory benches about the Government’s strategy.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group – made up of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs – again urged for an early March easing of restrictions.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that two or three weeks after the four priority groups have been vaccinated – due mid-February – lockdown measures should start being lifted.

“At that point you need to start bringing the economy back to life, and the first thing that needs to be reopened are our schools so our children can get back, mix with their friends, and enable their education and their social development to take place,” Mr Harper said.

“What we are asking for now is the Government to set out that plan and bring some clarity.”

Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

The latest Government figures showed more than 6.3 million people across the UK have received their first dose of the vaccine – with a record-breaking 491,970 being injected in a single day over the weekend.

Based on the latest figures, an average of 393,031 first doses of vaccine would be needed each day in order to meet the Government’s target of vaccinating the top four priority groups – including all over-70s – by mid-February.

The programme, which involves delaying a second dose for 12 weeks rather than three in order to increase the number of people who are given an initial shot, has been criticised by the British Medical Association.

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But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said he believed protection would continue to increase from the initial first dose throughout the 12-week period.

He told the BBC that people could be “misled” by critics complaining there is a lack of data for the Government’s approach, insisting there is “absolutely rock-solid evidence that if you give a dose of the vaccine to more people you give them protection and save lives”.

Meanwhile, senior ministers are due to meet on Tuesday to discuss a proposal to require travellers arriving in the UK to pay to quarantine at a designated hotel to ensure they are following the rules on self-isolating.

The proposal is said to have the backing of key ministers including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, as well as Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

It was prompted by the emergence of new variants of the virus in Brazil and South Africa which scientists fear may be less susceptible to the vaccines that have been developed.