COVID-19: Boris Johnson insists schools are safe and children should attend - but more restrictions may come

·4-min read

Boris Johnson has said "there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe" in areas where they are open - as he warned of potential tighter restrictions in the coming weeks.

As pressure mounted on the prime minister to keep all of England's schools closed amid rising COVID-19 cases, he insisted education is a priority and parents in areas where primary schools are open should send children in tomorrow.

"There is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe, and that education is a priority," Mr Johnson told the BBC's Andrew Marr. "The benefits of education are so huge, overwhelmingly we want to keep our young people in education."

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The prime minister also warned of possible tougher restrictions ahead: "It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that may be tougher. I'm fully reconciled to that. I think the whole country is fully reconciled to that."

COVID-19 cases across the UK are at record levels and increasing as a new, more transmissible variant spreads, affecting more children than previously.

Most primary schools in England are scheduled to open on Monday, followed by a staggered start for secondary schools a week later, with GCSE and A-level pupils set to return first.

Some primaries in areas where the new variant is more prevalent will not open on Monday. They are in London and parts of the South East, including 11 areas of Essex, nine areas of Kent, four areas of Hertfordshire, two areas of East Sussex and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.

However, the National Education Union (NEU) has said all primary schools should remain closed for at least two weeks following the Christmas break.

Kevin Courtney, the NEU's joint general secretary, said its members have "a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities and more generally".

But, giving advice to parents, Mr Johnson said: "Look at where your area is, overwhelmingly you'll be in a part of the country where primary schools tomorrow will be open."

In Brighton and Hove, the local council - against government guidance - has advised schools to implement remote learning until the 18 January, arguing its COVID-19 infection rate is now 500% higher than it was at the beginning of December.

A growing number of primary schools around the country are telling parents they will not open on Monday, including several in Brighton and Glossop in Derbyshire, while Birmingham City Council has said it will back any primary school that does not want to open.

Kent County Council's leader has called on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to close primary schools in the few remaining districts of the county that have been told to keep them open, telling him infection rates mean "it is very hard to justify" them opening.

Meanwhile, parents in Liverpool have been told that schools in the city which are scheduled to open will do so, with councillors saying: "With less than 24 hours to go, we are not asking schools and parents to change their plans."

Labour leader Keir Starmer said it was "inevitable" that more schools would need to close.

"Everybody wants children back in school. There is nobody that would argue with that. Of course that's what we all want," Sir Keir said.

"I don't want to call for the closure of schools tomorrow morning and add to the chaos, but we do need to recognise that it is inevitable that more schools will close, and we need a plan in place to deal with it."

Mr Johnson would not confirm whether secondary schools and primary schools that are closed would open on 18 January.

"Well, obviously, we're going to continue to assess the impact of the Tier 4 measures, the Tier 3 measures," he said.

He added that the new variant means "there are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider".

"I'm not going to speculate now about what they would be, but I'm sure that all our viewers and our listeners will understand what the sort of things... clearly school closures, which we had to do in March, is one of those things," Mr Johnson added.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss was more confident than the PM that schools would reopen by 18 January, telling Times Radio: "Absolutely. That's what we're seeking to do."

But Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), warned it would be difficult to keep the new variant under control without "much tighter" social distancing measures.

Asked if this would involve closing schools, he said children aged between 12 and 16 are "seven times more likely than others in a household to bring the infection into a household".

"And we know that there was a small dip in the amount of transmission in school children after the half term, which then went up again when they went back," he told Marr.