Covid: Schools will be told of reopening plans ‘as soon as we can’

The government will tell teachers and parents when schools in England can reopen “as soon as we can”, the prime minister has said.

MPs have called on the government to set out a “route map” for reopening amid concerns for children’s education.

Boris Johnson said he understood why people wanted a timetable but he did not want to lift restrictions while the infection rate was “still very high”.

But he could not give a guarantee that schools would reopen before Easter.

Mr Johnson said: “We’ve now got the R [reproduction rate] down below 1 across the whole of the country, that’s a great achievement, we don’t want to see a huge surge of infection just when we’ve got the vaccination programme going so well and people working so hard.

“I understand why people want to get a timetable from me today, what I can tell you is we’ll tell you, tell parents, tell teachers as much as we can as soon as we can.”

He said the government would be “looking at the potential of relaxing some measures” before mid-February, with Downing Street clarifying that this meant looking at the data to decide “what we may or may not be able to ease from 15 February onwards”.

There will be a Downing Street press conference later, led by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, No 10 has confirmed.

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Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said he had asked to table an urgent question in on the matter, but the Labour whips’ office tweeted that this had been denied.

The Conservative MP for for Harlow told BBC Breakfast there was “enormous uncertainty” and called for the government to set out what the conditions needed to be for pupils to return to schools.

Mr Halfon suggested the government could consider tighter restrictions in other parts of society and the economy, in order to enable schools to open.

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Analysis box by Adam Fleming, Chief political correspondent

Tory MPs were enraged by reports over the weekend that schools might not re-open fully until after the Easter holidays.

Ministers say it’s the progress of the pandemic that will determine their decision rather than a pre-agreed timetable.

Yet whenever the government speaks, parents hear dates. Whether it’s that the situation will be reviewed at half-term. Or a pledge to give two weeks’ notice when classes will come back.

MPs are now pushing for more transparency from the government about how they’ll assess the data, and for some ideas between school being mostly closed or totally open.

This issue is a perfect metaphor for the situation facing the entire country. Too much hope breeds disappointment, but living with uncertainty is just as hard. And you can come up with a plan but it might have to be junked if the virus has other ideas.

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the government wanted to “see all children back at the very earliest moment”.

Schools in England have been closed to most pupils since the national lockdown began on 5 January due to high levels of Covid transmission in the community.

There have been calls for teachers to be vaccinated sooner, although it is not clear if that would allow schools to reopen earlier.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told BBC Breakfast she hoped the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) would be in a position to decide whether teachers and support workers should be moved up the vaccination priority list by mid-to-late February.

A teacher gives a class over her mobile phone

PA Media

Covid death rates among educational professionals are not “statistically significantly different” to those in the general population, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, but secondary school teachers appeared to have an elevated risk compared particularly with people working in office-type jobs.

Among secondary school teachers Covid death rates were 39.2 deaths per 100,000 males, compared with 31.4 for all males aged 20 to 64, and 21.2 per 100,000 females, compared with 16.8, but the ONS said these were “not statistically significantly different than those of the same age and sex in the wider population”.

Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield joined the call for clarity and told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Children are more withdrawn, they are really suffering in terms of isolation, their confidence levels are falling, and for some there are serious issues.”

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, told Today lockdown measures should be eased two or three weeks after the first four priority groups had been vaccinated.

“At that point you need to start bringing the economy back to life, and the first thing that needs to be reopened are our schools so our children can get back,” he said.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said schools and parents needed time to plan and prepare for reopening, including knowing the practical measures which will be put in place such as testing or a phased return of pupils.

Wales’ first minister said on Friday that the “wholesale” return of pupils to school after February half-term was “unlikely”.

Gemma Cocker with Charlie and Lyla

Gemma Cocker

Gemma Cocker from Brighton is one of the many parents struggling to balance childcare, home learning and work.

She says she’s having to share her work laptop with her son, who has already missed learning time after the family moved home and did not have internet access. “We didn’t have any internet. The school said they had reached their limit so couldn’t take him,” she says.

And because her children are young, she says: “They’re never just going to watch a classroom by themselves, you have to be with them the whole time.”

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