Boris Johnson is looking at reopening all schools at once under a “big bang” approach, sparking fears he may be forced to push back his March deadline until Covid-19 cases are low enough for it to go ahead.
i has learnt the Prime Minister along with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson are considering getting all children back into the classroom simultaneously, despite the risk it would pose of virus rates going back up.
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The Government’s current approach to schools is understood to be behind this week’s wave of unrest among Conservative backbenchers, who now fear ministers could backslide on the pledge to begin reopening on 8 March.
A senior Tory told i: “The Government now wants to open all schools in one big bang, which is why people believe the 8 March target is now at risk.”
Backbenchers are also concerned over the Department for Education’s (DfE) ability to manage the process following Mr Williamson’s performance on school reopenings around Christmas and New Year.
The source added: “The worry is the weakness of the department under Williamson. They just do not seem to have the ability to plan things, it is constantly fighting fires because there is no proper forward planning.”
This week, former chief whip Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, warned Mr Johnson that it was “the ‘settled will’ of most MPs that pupils should be back in school on March 8”.
Conservative MPs who are not aligned with the lockdown-sceptic wing of the party are now calling for the PM to introduce a phased reopening of schools in a bid to see pupils return to the classroom sooner.
Robert Halfon, Tory chair of the Education Select Committee, said: “Even if they start with the first couple of years of primary school that would be something to reassure parents that it is safe to reopen. Public Health England has already issued research which has shown that primaries are safe to reopen and have very limited impact on transmission, so let’s get them open.
He added: “We are seeing more and more research showing the impact the prolonged closure of schools is having on children. It is so damaging, not just for their education and life chances, but their mental health and wellbeing.”
Mr Johnson has insisted that schools will be the first section of society to reopen once the nationwide lockdown restrictions are lifted, and has promised to give the sector two weeks’ notice before pupils start to return.
Government scientists have raised concerns about setting a deadline for when schools should reopen, stating that the level of Covid cases in England was currently too high to begin easing coronavirus measures.
It comes as early data from Israel and Italy showed infection rates among school students had increased as a result of the new Covid variants, according to the British Medical Journal. It has prompted scientists to warn reopening schools must be done with “caution”.
The Department for Education revealed yesterday that 97 per cent of schools and colleges in England are now ready to offer rapid Covid tests to pupils and staff.
Mr Williamson said: “I hope it gives parents and students the same confidence it gives me – that every possible action is being taken to get all students back into education as soon as possible.”
A No10 spokesman added: “We keep the latest data and evidence under constant review and on February 22 we will be setting out our plan to reopen schools and gradually reopening our economy and society.”
— to inews.co.uk