‘No doubt’ schools are safe and pupils should return – PM

Emma Bowden, PA
·6-min read

Boris Johnson has said parents should send primary-age children back to schools that are open this week, as he hinted at tougher coronavirus measures for England.

The Prime Minister said he has “no doubt” that classrooms are safe and that the risk to young people was “very, very small” amid calls from teaching unions to close all schools for the next two weeks.

Referring to the tiers system, Mr Johnson said that coronavirus restrictions in England are “probably about to get tougher” due to rising infection rates.

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, the Prime Minister said: “Schools are safe. It is very, very important to stress that.

“I would advise all parents thinking about want to do, look at where your area is, overwhelmingly you’ll be in a part of the country where primary schools tomorrow will be open.”

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson signalled that despite vaccines “coming down the track in their tens of millions”, regional restrictions in England were likely to get tougher.

“What we are doing now is using the tiering system, which is a very tough system… and, alas, probably about to get tougher to keep things under control,” he said.

Following the comments, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged the Prime Minister to bring in new national restrictions within the next 24 hours, calling the virus “out of control”.

“Let’s not have the Prime Minister saying ‘I’m going to do it, but not yet’, that’s the problem he has made so many times,” Sir Keir told reporters.

“Nationwide lockdown – the Prime Minister has hinted that that’s going to happen but he’s delaying again. And we can’t afford that again.”

The Labour leader also said it was “inevitable” that more schools would need to close.

A further 454 people have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Sunday, while there were another 54,990 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, according to the Government.

It comes as the NHS ramps up its vaccination programme with the newly approved Oxford University and AstraZeneca jab, with 530,000 doses available for rollout across the UK from Monday.

Six hospital trusts will be the first to administer the vaccine before the bulk of supplies are sent to hundreds of GP-led services to be rolled out, according to NHS England.

On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that all of London’s primary schools would remain shut to most students, rather than just those in certain boroughs as set out earlier in the week.

Primary schools in the capital and some surrounding areas are not due to reopen until January 18, but elsewhere students are expected to return to classrooms on Monday.

Asked whether he could guarantee schools will reopen on January 18, Mr Johnson added: “Well, obviously, we’re going to continue to assess the impact of the Tier 4 measures, the Tier 3 measures.”

Boris Johnson leaves the BBC studios
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves BBC New Broadcasting House in central London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss was more confident on the matter.

Pressed on whether the majority of secondary schools would open by January 11 and 18, depending on the area they are in, Ms Truss told Times Radio: “Absolutely. That’s what we are seeking to do.

“I’m a parent of secondary school children myself, so I know the challenges of making sure your children are keeping in touch with online learning, and we want to get those schools open.”

Meanwhile, the latest NHS data revealed that the number of hospital beds in England occupied by confirmed coronavirus patients climbed by 33% between Christmas Day and January 2.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told Sky News this increase was the equivalent of “12 extra full hospitals, full of Covid patients” in just eight days.

“So you can imagine why people in the NHS are worried about how quickly this virus is spreading,” he added.

Covid-19 patients in hospital in England
(PA Graphics)

Professor Sir Mark Walport, who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that it would be difficult to keep the new variant under control without “much tighter” social distancing measures.

Asked if this included closing schools, the former chief scientific adviser told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We know that transmission occurs within schools.

“We know that a person between 12 and 16 is 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.”

On Saturday evening, the Department for Education said remote learning was “a last resort” and classrooms should reopen “wherever possible” with appropriate safety measures to help mitigate the risk of transmission.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, said children’s education cannot be put on “furlough” and that school closures should be kept to a minimum.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

But general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) Dr Mary Bousted earlier said schools should stay closed for two weeks to “break the chain” of transmission and prevent the NHS becoming “overwhelmed”.

The union, which represents the majority of teachers, has advised its members it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said the union had started preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education, asking it to share its scientific data about safety and transmission rates.

Unions have also called for the reopening of Wales’ schools to be delayed with Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, saying “the latest data shows that in large parts of Wales, control of infection has been lost”.

In December, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said schools would use staggered returns for pupils with face-to-face learning expected to return for most by January 11 and a full return before January 18.

Elsewhere, First Minister Arlene Foster said remote learning for school children in Northern Ireland should only be for a short period.

Primary pupils are to be taught remotely for the week from Monday January 4 to Friday 8, while for secondary school Years 8 to 11, remote learning is due to last for the entire month.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said the “planning assumption” remains to open schools on January 18, but parents will be informed of any changes that may be necessary.