Minister insists four-year-old schoolchildren can stick to social distancing rules

Joe Gamp
Contributor, Yahoo News UK
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis insisted children as young as four can maintain social distancing when schools reopen on 1 June. (AP)

A minister has suggested that children as young as four will be able to maintain social distancing measures at school under the latest coronavirus lockdown rules.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he believes it is possible for young children to socially distance in schools, amid concerns by some parents, teachers and unions over plans announced on Sunday evening to reopen schools on 1 June.

General secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), Patrick Roach, said there was “very serious concerns” about children returning to school next month.

But on Friday, Lewis told BBC Breakfast backed the government’s ambitions, saying: “I know the Education Secretary and his team are talking continually to the unions and to teachers directly as well around making sure that we’ve got a good, safe environment.”

Lewis added it was important “not just so that parents can get to work, but particularly, as I say, at those age groups it is a really key time for children to be taking in that knowledge – and a few weeks out of school can make quite a big difference”.

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Addressing whether children can socially distance, Mr Lewis said: “I think one of the things about being at school is the ability for teachers who, I know when I was at school and my children look up to teachers, have that opportunity to ensure we’re educating children

“I think one of the things teachers are able to do, both in the classroom and outside the classroom, and all of us as parents and people in society, is to continue to educate each other around social distance.

Teachers, parents and unions have expressed serious concerns over children returning to school at the beginning of next month. (PA/Getty Images)

“So yes, even in a school environment I think it is important that we do what we can to encourage and explain and educate around social distancing.”

Mr Lewis' comments appeared to be in direct contrast to Children's Minister Vicky Ford, who told Mumsnet today that primary school children “cannot be expected to socially distance”.

In answer to several questions on social distancing in schools and nurseries during a live webchat, Ms Ford said: “We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff.

“In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account.

“It is still important to reduce contact between people as much as possible, and we can achieve that and reduce transmission risk by ensuring children, young people and staff where possible, only mix in a small, consistent group and that this small group or ‘bubble’ stays away from other people and groups.”

It follows Liverpool Mayor Joey Anderson defying government plans on Friday by saying schools will not reopen in the city on 1 June, despite Boris Johnson’s plans.

The mayor said only children of key workers and vulnerable children will be allowed in school in the city from the beginning of next month.

Liverpool City Council said the reopening of schools would be staggered, with pupils only allowed to return when headteachers, governing bodies, council officials and unions deem it safe to do so.

The Guardian reports how NASUWT has threatened legal action to defend teachers in a letter sent to authorities.

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach says government and local authorities risked legal action if teachers are forced to return to the classroom from 1 June. (Getty Images)

The newspaper says the letter informs government and local authorities that they risked legal action for “breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk, and any other legal recourse available” if efforts were made to force teachers into classrooms.”

Union general secretary Roach said: “The NASUWT recognises that schools and employers have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying, and will therefore appreciate that there can be no compromise on health and safety.

“If this means that schools are unable to open safely before September, because they are unable to make arrangements to safeguard their staff and pupils, then that position must be accepted.”

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