The government has ordered all schools in England to close on Friday “until further notice” amid the coronavirus crisis.
The announcement was made by education secretary Gavin Williamson in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, with the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK continuing to rise.
It comes after the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments also announced its schools will shut on Friday. Schools in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, closed on Wednesday.
Williamson told MPs: “The public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal are shifting.
“It is also clear that schools are increasingly finding it more difficult to continue as normal as illness and self-isolation impacts on staffing levels and pupil attendance.
“After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice.”
Williamson said the closures will affect all children, except to those of key workers and those “who are most vulnerable”.
The closures will also apply to early years providers, sixth forms, further education colleges, independent schools and boarding schools.
It also means exams will not take place in May and June, Williamson told MPs.
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He added: “This is a testing time for the whole nation, but by asking schools to look after the children of key workers [such as NHS staff and delivery drivers] and the most vulnerable, we will directly be saving people’s lives.”
His Labour counterpart, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, asked him to “guarantee that free school meals will be made available to all those eligible”.
Williamson said: “We will be giving the schools the authority and ability to issue vouchers to every child immediately for next week.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the union supports the decision, though he added: “The cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams will inevitably cause anxiety to students and we will work closely with Ofqual on ensuring that qualifications are awarded fairly and consistently in lieu of exams.
“The priority is now to focus on maintaining provision for vulnerable children and those of key workers. We know that many schools have already drawn up plans to do exactly that and are well ahead of the curve.
Downing Street had previously resisted school closures, while insisting at the same time the option remained “on the table”.
Sir Patrick Vallance, Number 10’s chief scientific adviser, had told the health and social care committee on Tuesday that while school closures “would have an effect”, it would be to a lesser extent than the government’s other interventions.
Sir Patrick pointed out many children could be looked after by grandparents, many of whom would be at a higher risk.