Coronavirus: 'Highly variable' attendance at schools - as UK warned 'disease is not done yet'

Tom Gillespie, news reporter
Social distancing measures are in place at Handcross Primary School near Haywards Heath, West Sussex

Many parents are choosing to keep their children at home after the easing of lockdown measures - as the health secretary insists the UK is "winning the battle against coronavirus".

On the day many classrooms re-opened in England, Matt Hancock said that the falling death rates mean the government has been able to make some "cautious changes to the lockdown rules, safely and carefully".

He said: "The data show that we are winning the battle against coronavirus."

But at the same time, he also warned: "Do not step too far... the disease is not done yet."

Mr Hancock announced that 39,045 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Sunday.

It comes after Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers reported attendance ranges between 40% to 70% of eligible children on Monday.

He added that the early signs were that the picture on the wider opening of primary schools across England was "very mixed".

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Mr Barton said: "School leaders are also reporting that they are seeing an increase in the number of key worker children who are attending across all year groups.

"Schools have remained open to vulnerable and key worker children throughout the lockdown period, and as the lockdown eases, it is likely this will lead to greater demand for places.

"This will be extremely challenging for primary schools to accommodate, particularly small primary schools, in addition to bringing in the eligible year groups."

School classrooms have remained quiet and shoppers are yet to return to markets as the UK takes "tentative steps" out of the relaxed lockdown measures.

Sky News correspondent Ashna Hurynag has visited Handcross Primary School near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, where pupils have been reunited with friends they haven't seen in 10 weeks.

She said: "The classrooms are eerily quiet and corridors are void of hustle and bustle.

"No such business is allowed - as the two-metre distancing is enforced everywhere from the playground to the toilets.

"Friends that haven't seen each other in 10 weeks can't give each other a hug. Play areas are cut off with tape, safety is paramount."

She also said there are only individual desks and separate supplies for each pupil with no sharing allowed.

Tape on the floor marks the two-metre "safe" route to the sink for hand-washing.

Pupils have also been sat at individual desks at Hiltingbury Infant School in Chandler's Ford, Hampshire.

Sky's North of England correspondent Gerard Tubb visited Kirkgate market in Leeds, where the council has waived stall holder fees.

He said: "It's still early but there are no customers.

"In the first hour and a half of trading after 10 weeks of lockdown, Akbar Balkhi sold just one pair of socks for £2."

Ikea homeware stores have reopened in England today, with a long queue seen outside an outlet in Lakeside, Thurrock.

Protective checkout screens and sanitiser are available in stores and all payments must be made by card.

The restaurants and playgrounds in the chain's outlets remain closed.

Wardens are patrolling stores and the number of customers is limited.

Speaking about the easing of the lockdown measures, Chancellor Rishi Sunak told Sky News on Monday: "We've got a very clear plan that we've been sticking through throughout this whole process, and we're now at the stage of that plan where we can get our lives a little bit more back to normal.

"But that isn't an overnight big bang thing, its measured, its progressive, and we are doing it in a safe and responsible way."

The restrictions have been relaxed as NHS England revealed the number of coronavirus-related deaths in English hospitals rose by 108 on Tuesday, with the highest number in the North East and Yorkshire where 30 deaths were recorded.

There were no deaths confirmed in the South West of the country.

There has been one more coronavirus-related death recorded in Northern Ireland since Friday, the Department of Health said, bringing the total to 524.

Public Health Wales confirmed another five deaths on Monday bringing the country's total to five.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland has recorded one more coronavirus death, bringing its total to 2,363.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma told Sky News on Monday that the lockdown in England is being eased in a "phased manner".

He added: "This is not a dash... these are very cautious, tentative steps that we are taking.

"The one thing that no one wants to see is a second spike."

The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) has warned experts have been "increasingly concerned" ministers are making the wrong decision by easing restrictions too quickly.

Parents seemingly share their concerns, with a survey suggesting 46% of families were expected to keep pupils at home as classes open to children in reception, year one and year six in England.

ADPH president Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy said public health directors are concerned people are "not keeping to social distancing as it was", with pictures emerging of crowded beaches and beauty spots over the weekend.

Groups of up to six people are now permitted to meet outside at a distance in England, and outdoor markets and car showrooms are reopening.

Socially-distanced outdoor meetings of the same size could already take place in Northern Ireland, while in Scotland individuals can meet those from one other household in groups of up to eight.

Wales has not set a size restriction, but groups meeting outside must only be comprised of individuals from two different households.

This week from today to Thursday, Dermot Murnaghan will be hosting After the Pandemic: Our New World - a series of special live programmes about what our world will be like once the pandemic is over.

We'll be joined by some of the biggest names from the worlds of culture, politics, economics, science and technology. And you can take part too.

If you'd like to be in our virtual audience - from your own home - and put questions to the experts, email