Michael Gove has admitted that plans for children in England to return to school within the next fortnight are “under review” as the government’s scientific advisers urge a delay to the start of the new term.
Under the plan, children will go back to primary school the week of January 4 along with those doing GCSEs and A-levels, vulnerable youngsters and the children of essential workers. Other secondary school pupils will return to classes the following week, starting January 11.
Schools are expected to test millions of pupils for Covid-19 at the start of the new term as part of a staggered rollout of mass testing.
But Mr Gove, Cabinet Office minister, told Times Radio on Monday that ministers would speak to headteachers over the next 48 hours to ensure that the plans were “right and robust”, adding: “We do keep things under review.”
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, is also expected to meet Downing Street officials to consider the question of whether schools in tier 4 areas should remain closed until February.
It emerged on Monday that scientists have urged Boris Johnson, the prime minister, to keep secondary schools closed in January because of concerns over a new, more virulent strain of coronavirus.
NHS England said there were 20,426 people infected with Covid-19 in hospitals on Monday morning, higher than the previous record figure of 18,946 on April 12. The UK also reported its highest figure yet for positive coronavirus tests in a single day, at 41,385.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said that the R number — the rate at which the virus reproduces — could be kept below the crucial 1 level if schools remained shut. Sage also warned that another national lockdown could be necessary at a meeting last week, according to website Politico.
Separately, a paper produced last week by some Sage members for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicted “large resurgences” of the virus without further suppression.
“Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown implemented in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction number R to less than 1, unless primary schools, secondary schools and universities are also closed,” it said.
Any such move would be hugely controversial given that Mr Johnson has said it is “vitally important” that children return to school after the disruption to education during the pandemic.
Some scientists agree. “There seems to be growing momentum leaning towards the closing of schools which is really worrying me,” said Mike Tildesley, associate professor at the University of Warwick and a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling.
“It does appear that there are more cases in younger people, but it is not clear that it is schools that are driving transmission. I’ve always taken the position that we should close everything else before we close schools,” he said, pointing to the effects that missing classes could have on education, particularly for those from a disadvantaged background.
The prime minister’s language on school reopening appeared to shift last week at a press conference in which he said ministers would retain the current plan “if we possibly can”.
But one senior figure said on Monday that it was still a priority to get children back to school. “We have a huge, huge, huge programme of mass testing in order for that to happen, that still remains until and unless otherwise,” he added.
Teaching unions have also called for a delay to the reopening of schools. NASUWT, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, urged Mr Williamson to permit headteachers to move to online learning and asked the government to “publish new safety guidance for schools in light of the increased risk posed by the [new Covid-19] variant”.
The National Education Union has called on the government not to reopen classrooms until all children are tested for Covid-19 — which, if implemented, would mean a delay of at least two weeks.
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