Boris Johnson said he “hated” having to put restrictions on schools in the pandemic and defended a decision not to reopen schools in summer 2020 as it would not have been “practically very easy to do”.
The former prime minister was questioned as to why pubs and restaurants reopened before schools in the summer unlocking that year.
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has previously heard from the former children’s commissioner for England who said prioritising reopening theme parks and Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme over schools during the pandemic was a “terrible mistake” and played a huge part in children’s negative lockdown experience.
Anne Longfield, who was commissioner until February 2021, described the pandemic as having been a “disaster” for many disadvantaged and already vulnerable children, criticising the “indecisive” and at times “indifferent” Government approach to the impact of policy decisions.
Appearing before the inquiry on Thursday, Mr Johnson described schools as having been “reservoirs of of risk” from which younger people might spread the virus to older, more vulnerable people.
Rajiv Menon KC, representing children’s groups, put to Mr Johnson that he had listed reopening schools in summer 2020 as one of his key priorities.
The lawyer asked him: “Why then, were hospitality and cultural venues including pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, and beauty salons allowed to reopen on the 4th of July 2020, dubbed Independence Day by some in government, but not schools?”
The former Conservative Party leader said schools are “big potential reservoirs of risk and younger people can easily transmit the virus to older and more vulnerable people”.
The lawyer pressed him, saying: “You think schools are larger reservoirs of risk than pubs and restaurants and hairdressers and beauty salons, and non-essential retail for that matter?”
Mr Johnson told him: “I think that we thought it sensible given where we were in the school calendar to resume with the normal return of school.”
Mr Menon told him: “Priority was given in your budget of risk to, amongst other things, pubs and hairdressers, that’s the reality isn’t it?”
Mr Johnson said: “We faced an unlocking which went on until July, the school holidays normally began then. There were reasons for thinking it might be sensible to resume school, when school normally resumes.”
Mr Menon suggested an alternative would have been to keep schools open into August, because they had been closed for so long beforehand.
Mr Johnson said this might not have been “practically very easy to do”.
The former PM added that he “hated all the restrictions that we had to place on schools”.
He said he “wanted to get them open but we faced a really, really awful pandemic” and the judgment had been that “schools really did present a considerable addition to the budget of risk”.
Mr Johnson said it was “terrible” but “inevitable” to have to close schools again in January 2021 after the emergence of the more transmissible Alpha variant of the virus.
He told the inquiry: “It’s always the most vulnerable families, it’s the poorest kids who come off worse from school closures. And that was definitely the case, we’d seen that in the first lockdown without a shadow of a doubt.
“So we were desperate to keep schools open.”
He insisted he did “fight and fight and fight in my heart and head to keep schools open”.
He added: “I really wanted to do it, but it just wasn’t a runner and we had to lock everything down.”
He said he had “listened respectfully” to his many colleagues, including then education secretary Gavin Williamson, who wanted to keep schools open.
Mr Johnson said: “The fact is that, sadly, schools are terrific reservoirs of the virus. And in the cold winter months, they were going to be a big vector of transmission for elderly people and it wasn’t a runner.”