All schools in England should remain closed for two weeks following the Christmas break to reduce the spread of Covid-19, a leading teaching union has said.
The call from the National Education Union (NEU) comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed on Friday that all London primary schools will remain shut next week.
The union’s joint general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said the decision should be extended to all schools.
Dr Bousted told BBC Breakfast: “We know that pupils now can transmit the virus through their homes, through to their families and into the community, they’re the most effective transmitter of the virus.
“You combine that with the new variant being up to 70% more infective than the previous Covid virus which was very infective, then it’s clear we have to do something to break the chain of rising levels of infection in our community.”
She added: “The danger is that by opening schools as levels of infection are rising so high and are already so high amongst pupils, then we’re not going to break that chain and our NHS will become overwhelmed so we said all schools should be closed for the first two weeks.
“We regret to have to say that, we don’t want to have to say the schools will close but our fear is if we don’t do something now, they’re going to have to be closed for a much longer period later on this month.”
Mr Williamson had said the decision to close all London primary schools was a “last resort”.
From January 4, London primary schools will be required to provide remote learning for two weeks to all children except vulnerable children and those of key workers, who will be permitted to continue to attend.
Under the Government’s initial plan, secondary schools and colleges were set to be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of January, while primary schools within 50 local authorities in London and the south of England were also told to keep their doors shut until January 18.
We must #MakeSchoolsSafe so we can #protectcommunities. Members please register for our emergency briefings and tomorrow's will be live streamed on social media. We will be announcing the decision of the Executive later. pic.twitter.com/Dmim5YxvoX
— National Education Union (@NEUnion) January 2, 2021
But while the move was welcomed as the “right decision”, the Government was also accused of making another U-turn just days after it told some schools to reopen for the new term.
Dr Bousted criticised the Government for an “inability to even read the data”, adding: “It seems to me just to be inexplicable that the Government is getting this so badly wrong.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the Government’s decision had caused “huge stress” for pupils, families and staff.
The row comes after figures showed a further 53,285 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Friday, with another 613 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
This was the fourth day in a row daily cases have been above 50,000, with a new record high of 55,892 cases reported on New Year’s Eve – the highest since mass testing began in late May.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the current case figures are “fairly mild” compared to what is expected in a week’s time and that healthcare workers are “really worried” about the coming months, with infection levels putting hospitals under increasing pressure.
He told the BBC: “All hospitals that haven’t had the big pressures that they’ve had in the South East, and London and South Wales, should expect that it’s going to come their way.
“This new variant is definitely more infectious and is spreading across the whole of the country. It seems very likely that we are going to see more and more cases, wherever people work in the UK, and we need to be prepared for that.”
One nurse described the situation in hospitals as “unbearable”.
The nurse, who works at the Whittington Hospital in north London, described patients being left in corridors, some spending up to three hours in ambulances because of a lack of beds and one being left without oxygen when their cylinder ran out.
Meanwhile, the UK is preparing to send out the new Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine, with 530,000 doses available for rollout from Monday.
The Times reported that a member of the Oxford/AstraZeneca team had said two million doses of the Oxford vaccine are due to be supplied each week by the middle of January.
It comes after the UK’s chief medical officers warned on Thursday that vaccine shortage was a “reality that cannot be wished away”.
Rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab began almost a month ago but second doses of either vaccine will now take place within 12 weeks rather than 21 days as initially planned.
More than a million people have received their first coronavirus vaccination but in a joint statement England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the public will “understand” and “thank” them for the plan to give first jabs as a priority, delaying the follow-up vaccination for others.
Deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Professor Anthony Harnden, defended the plans.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday that patients he had dealt with accepted the move, stating: “When it was explained to them that the vaccine offers 90% protection for one dose, and the priority was to get as many people vaccinated in the elderly and vulnerable community as possible, they understood.
“I think the country is all in this together.
“And, I think we really, really want to pull together to try and do the best strategy possible.”