Tensions continue over lockdown easing as pupils begin returning to school

PA Reporters

Pupils will begin to return to school and families will be reunited on Monday as major changes are made to lockdown restrictions in England.

It is part of a wider easing of measures that will also see groups of up to six people allowed to meet in public places or private gardens and outdoor markets and car showrooms reopen.

But Government leaders have stressed social distancing measures must stay in place, particularly staying two metres apart from someone outside your household.

It comes as several scientists have criticised the move suggesting it is too early to lift restrictions and could cause coronavirus infections to rapidly rise again.

Ministers insist the time is right to ease the lockdown because the Government has met its five tests to do so and the rate of infection, or R value, has been consistently below one.

The new rules in England allow for families and friends to meet up for picnics and barbecues and travel freely around the country, so long as they do not stay anywhere overnight that is not their primary home.

Primary school children in England in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 will return to class as the Government and education unions continue to fight over whether it is safe to do so.

Parents are also reluctant to send their children back, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research, after its survey of more than 1,200 school leaders found headteachers were expecting 46% of families to keep pupils at home.

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Findings from a recent PA news agency survey of local authorities show that more than 20 councils across England – predominantly in the north – are also advising schools not to open to more pupils this week.

Some of those polled have claimed that the NHS Test and Trace system will not be “robust enough” to allay fears over the potential spreading of the virus due to difficulty maintaining social distancing.

Meanwhile, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has called on the Government to set up summer classes in July and August to help children catch up on work they missed during lockdown, with some facing up to six months off school depending on when they are able to return.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, she said summer schools could help the “most deprived” and “provide activities of all kinds, meals and potentially some learning too”.

A warm weekend saw people flock to beaches and parks around the UK, prompting members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), to warn that ministers are taking risks.

People fill the beach at Durdle Door, near Lulworth, despite Dorset Council announcing that the beach was closed to the public after three people were seriously injured jumping off cliffs into the sea (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health told The Guardian the public was “not keeping to social distancing as it was”, adding the organisation was  “increasingly concerned that the Government is misjudging the balance of risk between more social interaction and the risk of a resurgence of the virus, and is easing too many restrictions too quickly”.

But deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said the public would be safe if they were “sensible” and did not “overdo it”.

Speaking at the Downing Street briefing on Sunday, she said: “Where we are seeing that Government is easing measures, the public really, really need to stick to those messages, and it is not just about what it is possible to do, it’s about what it is sensible to do, and what is sensible to do is have as few interactions as possible as you can with other people in all settings.”

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick also insisted the Government’s easing of restrictions was correct.

He said: “We’re reasonably confident that the steps we’ve taken, and will be taking on Monday, are manageable.”

Referring to the R rate of coronavirus, Mr Jenrick said: “We have to all continue to play our part in that, because the rate of infection remains somewhere between 0.7 and 0.9 and the room for manoeuvre is quite limited.”

New guidelines also allow 2.2 million “shielded” people, classed as “extremely vulnerable”, to have more social interaction ahead of a review on June 15.

Mr Jenrick added: “What we’re saying to the people who have been shielding for the last 10 weeks is that we think that the rate of infection is sufficiently low now to enable you to do some quite modest things, like going outside for a walk with members of your household, or like, if you’ve been living alone, meeting somebody from another household.”

In other developments:

– The Department of Health said another 113 people had died across all settings having tested positive for coronavirus, with the total number of UK deaths involving Covid-19 above 48,000.

– Daily coronavirus testing capacity reached 200,000 on Saturday, including capacity for 40,000 antibody tests a day, meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s target of reaching the milestone by the end of May.

– Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said England was “transitioning” from level four to level three on the Covid Alert Levels system, which measures the threat level of coronavirus in the UK.

– Mr Jenrick said he was hopeful places of worship could open for individual prayer, small weddings and services “in the coming weeks”.

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Measures are also being eased across the other home nations.

In Scotland, people can now meet others from one other household at a time as long as it is outdoors, but social distancing should continue and groups must be a maximum of eight people.

People in Wales will be allowed to meet up with others outdoors from Monday, although it is recommended they do not travel more than five miles to do so.

In Northern Ireland, more retailers can open and small outdoor weddings will receive the go-ahead from June 8 if the coronavirus infection rate remains under control.