School closures could be inevitable after wave of Omicron, senior MPs warn

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Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, delievered an urgent question to parliament amid growing school absences due to COVID. (Credit: parliamentlive.tv)
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, delievered an urgent question to parliament amid growing school absences due to COVID. (Credit: parliamentlive.tv)

A senior Conservative MP has warned the country is "moving towards school closures" as England struggles to halt a growing surge of Omicron cases.

The warning comes as it was confirmed that secondary schools will be offered a “small amount of flexibility” on when they return after Christmas.

The government said such an approach would enable schools to put in place measures to test pupils for COVID on their return from their break. Parents have also been urged not take their children out of school before term ends.

But Conservative MPs urged schools to remain open in the new year and prevent the "damage" that school closures bring to pupils.

Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Select Committee, said: "Despite the government's assurances it seems to me we are moving sadly towards de facto school closures.

Halfon added: "The four horsemen of the education apocalypse have been galloping towards our young people in the form of a widening attainment gap, an epidemic of mental health problems, a rise in safeguarding hazards and a loss of life chances."

He asked what the plan is to keep schools open, and suggested a “network of supply teachers” should be ready to step in should education staff be required to isolate.

And he highlighted the significant attainment gap between children from wealthy and poor backgrounds during the last lockdown and the rise in children being referred to mental health services, which has increased by 62% compared to March 2020.

Secondary school children will be required to take a lateral flow test upon arrival under new measures. (Getty Images)
Secondary school children will be required to take a lateral flow test upon arrival under new measures. (Getty Images)

Last week saw a huge drop in the number of children attending school.

On 9 December, 236,000 pupils were absent for COVID-related reasons. This was up from 208,000 children, or 2.6% of all pupils, on November 25.

And school leaders have warned of even worse attendance levels due to COVID in recent days as the Omicron variant spreads.

Department for Education minister Alex Burghart insisted that the government is "committed to ensuring schools open in January as normal".

Read more: Boris Johnson announces Downing Street press conference about COVID latest news this evening

He said: "The classroom is the very best place for children and young people's development.

"Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority. We are absolutely clear that the best place for school children is in schools."

He promised on site lateral flow tests for all secondary school pupils in the new year, as well as additional hygiene practices and greater ventilation in classrooms.

Watch: Government stresses reluctance to close schools in face of Omicron

Conservative former health minister Steve Brine called on the government to make a firm commitment, saying: “What is the government going to do legally to see that its will is enforced and that schools are back, as they should be, as they need to be in January?”

Former teacher Jonathan Gullis, now Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, said: “I don’t want to hear from the minister that we’re going to do everything we can, I want to hear simply that they’re going to stay open.”

The government missed their target to get all children aged between 12 and 15 vaccinated by the October half term.

Just 58% of adults in England said that children aged 12 to 15 years in their household are already vaccinated, according to the ONS.

The government missed their target to offer vaccinations to all 12-15 year olds in England by the autumn half-term. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
The government missed their target to offer vaccinations to all 12-15 year olds in England by the autumn half-term. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Fully vaccinated school staff who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID do not have to isolate but can take a rapid lateral flow test everyday for seven days and continue to attend as normal unless they receive a positive test.

The debate on schools comes the day after Boris Johnson experienced the biggest backbench rebellion since he becoming prime minister.

A hundred Tory MPs voted against the imposition of Plan B restrictions which includes compulsory vaccinations for NHS staff, more masks being worn in indoor places and requiring people to show proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test before entering certain venues.

The prime minister has warned of a "tidal wave" of the new variant with some experts warning there are at least 200,000 new cases every day.

On Wednesday, Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, warned that the NHS could be in "serious peril" soon as she believes that Omicron is the "most significant threat since the start of the pandemic."

Speaking to the Transport Select Committee she said: "The numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we've seen in cases for previous variants."

There are currently 14 confirmed hospitalisations for Omicron.

Watch: Dr Jenny Harries says UK could see 'staggering' omicron case numbers

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