Ministers still intend to reopen schools at full capacity across England in September despite concerns raised by teaching unions, a cabinet minister has said.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick also said there were no plans to close pubs in order to keep coronavirus infection levels down ahead of the return to classrooms, after a government scientific adviser suggested that there might have to be a “trade-off” between the two.
He also cast doubt on reports that Boris Johnson’s government is considering asking over-50s to stay at home in an age-differentiated lockdown in the case of an upsurge in Covid-19, telling Times Radio: “That’s not something that is being actively considered.”
Mr Jenrick was speaking after the general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT warned that schools needed “greater clarity” about plans to reopen their gates, in the wake of the sudden scaling back of lockdown relaxations in the North-West and delays to the planned return of wedding receptions and indoor leisure venues.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty sparked speculation about possible trade-offs between different aspects of lockdown when he warned on Friday that England was “near the limit” of the restrictions which can be relaxed without losing control of the virus, telling a Downing Street press conference: “If we wish to do more things in the future, we may have to do less of some other things.”
A member of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), Prof Graham Medley, said that the country may have to ask itself “Do we think pubs are more important than schools?”. And Prof Susan Michie, of the Independent Sage group of scientists, told The Independent that “super-spreader areas” like indoor pubs and gyms should be shut in a drive for “zero Covid” to make school reopening safer.
Patrick Roach of NASUWT, which represents 300,000 teachers across the UK, told The Observer: “In light of recent changes to plans for relaxing lockdown measures, the government needs to provide greater clarity to school leaders, teachers and parents about what this will mean for the reopening of schools in September.”
He added: “The warning from the chief medical officer that a fine balance has to be struck in ensuring public health at this stage of the pandemic, and that the country may have reached the limits to the easing of lockdown, will no doubt prompt questions for many parents as well as for those working in schools.
“If schools are to reopen safely, the government will need to give them clarification about what they need to do to take account of the latest scientific evidence and advice, as well as sufficient time to review and, if necessary, adjust their reopening plans.”
Asked on Times Radio whether the government would look to close pubs in response to a rise in coronavirus infections, Mr Jenrick said: “We don’t have any plans to do that.”
But he said that getting all schools back for all pupils in September would be a priority should there be a second spike of infections.
“Reopening schools and getting our children back into the classroom with that direct face-to-face contact with their teachers will be a priority for the government when we have to make those tough choices,” he said.
Mr Jenrick added: “We want to ensure that schools return in September. We need to get all of our kids back to school. We’ve set out very detailed guidance as to how we can do that. We think we can do that safely.
Only a few primary years have returned to classrooms since lockdown began in March (AFP via Getty)
“Schools are working very hard to put those plans into practice… Obviously we will keep working with teachers and their unions to give them confidence, and we want to get all political parties behind us on this, because I think there are few things more important to the future of this country than getting children back to school in the classroom from September.”
Responding to reports of plans to require over-50s to “shield” themselves from coronavirus while allowing younger people free movement, Mr Jenrick said: “This is just speculation.
“You would expect the Government to be considering all of the range of options that might be available.
“That’s not something that is being actively considered.”
He said any fresh restrictions were unlikely to apply wholesale, adding: “We don’t want to do anything that is a blanket approach across the country.
“Our strategy is to manage this in a localised way with targeted action as we’ve done in Leicester, as we’re doing now in the north-west.
“We will follow the data and look at options if we have to but that approach is the way we restrict in certain areas – it is difficult for those who live there but it provides greater freedom for the rest of the country, for businesses to reopen and for people to get on with their daily lives, and that has to be the way forward if we can.”
Asked whether there were plans to put London under lockdown if Covid rates increased, he added: “Not as far as I’m aware.
“We’re taking a very localised approach following the data and I’m working, for example, with each of the directors of public health in the London boroughs who are monitoring the rate of transmission in their own areas very closely.
“There is no plan, as far as I’m aware, to do anything broader in London.”
Meanwhile, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it had become clear that there is a link between closing schools and controlling the spread of the virus. “The evidence is clear that schools are important in the spread of Covid-19,” he said. “Our studies show that, across Europe, closing schools was the single factor most strongly associated with drops in infection rates.”
Hunter added that while individual risks to children and teachers were probably low, school transmission was likely to push up general infection rates, so the disease would rise exponentially again. “Would re-opening schools increase the spread of Covid-19 in the population? Yes. I think it would very probably do that.”