Boris Johnson was coming under increasing pressure to speed up the reopening of English schools today as Wales confirmed its intention to restart some primary classes after the February half term.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething confirmed that some of the youngest age groups would go back to school from February 22 under a similar plan to that underway in Scotland.
In contrast, English schools are not due to reopen until March 8, and the Prime Minister last night was resisting mounting pressure to accelerate.
Tory MPs called for the move after new research showed that as well as saving lives, the Oxford vaccine will cut transmission of the virus by two-thirds.
There was also concern that with English pupils risk falling further behind their counterparts.
Mr Gething told Times Radio that the ‘first priority’ for the Welsh Government is to start a return to face-to-face teaching in some schools, despite coronavirus cases being ‘quite high’.
‘We’ve got to go in small steps and schools are the first priority and hopefully, straight after the half-term break, we’ll be able to see our youngest children return to face-to-face learning in primary schools,’ he said.
Wales currently has a Covid infection rate of between 127 and 135 people per 100,000, broadly similar to that in Scotland. England’s rate is around 269 per 100,000.
The Prime Minister last night insisted that schools cannot reopen before March 8 at the earliest.
He said he shared the ‘urgency’ of those wanting children back in the classroom, but warned that an earlier return could spark another upsurge in the virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured at the Downing Street briefing yesterday) is resisting mounting pressure to accelerate the reopening of schools across England
Mr Johnson said: ‘To people who understandably want to go faster – I share that anxiety and urgency. That is why we fought to keep schools open.
‘What we don’t want to do now that we are making progress with the vaccine rollout and we have got a timetable for the way ahead, we don’t want to be forced into reverse.
‘We think this is the prudent and cautious approach. I think it is much better to stick to that.’
But Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Commons education committee, urged ministers to ‘think again’ about the decision to set March 8 as the earliest possible date for a return to the classroom.
Young pupils arrive at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire, last month
Mr Halfon pointed out that a Public Health England study last week found there was a ‘strong case’ for the return of primary schools, where outbreaks have been low.
‘If the health experts say it’s safe and Scotland can do it, why can’t we?’ he said. ‘We have got the four horsemen of the education apocalypse coming down the track – attainment, mental health, safeguarding and loss of future prospects and wages.
‘We need to think again because the damage is growing by the day.’
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, said the encouraging news on vaccines meant it was time for ministers to start addressing ‘the harms caused by the measures we’re putting in place to control Covid, as well as the harms caused by Covid itself’.
Oscar Mumby, 10, and Harriet Mumby, 8, are helped with their online schoolwork by their mother Jo Mumby in Cuckfield, West Sussex, last week as schools continue to be closed
Mr Harper said Scotland’s decision to press ahead with the reopening of schools meant ‘there needs to be a very good reason for keeping English schools shut for so much longer’.
He added: ‘Every hour of classroom learning lost is a tragedy for the nation’s children and the schools shutdown is having a huge impact on children’s health and welfare.’
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘The Government needs to be flexible about schools going back. If the evidence supports it, then we should be getting children back to school earlier than expected.’
Ministers are nervous about the public reaction later this month if children in Scotland and Wales are allowed back to the classroom while those in England are forced to endure more weeks of home learning.
A Downing Street source denied the Government was dragging its feet, saying the case rate in England was double that in Scotland. ‘Opening schools is our top priority, but it is still too early,’ the source said.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty also warned about rushing the return to school.
He said there was ‘no doubt’ that schools were safe, with the risk to children ‘incredibly low’, but he warned that allowing them to return too soon risked sparking another surge in the virus.
The Government has appointed a ‘catch-up’ tsar to oversee a huge programme designed to help children make up for their lost education.
Education expert Sir Kevan Collins will lead a taskforce devising catch-up plans, which are expected to include summer schools and an expansion of one-to-one tuition to help those who have fallen behind.
— to www.dailymail.co.uk