Boris Johnson is facing escalating pressure to delay the reopening of schools next week as a government scientific adviser warned it may be the “only alternative” amid rapidly increasing cases of coronavirus and hospitalisations in England.
As the county enters a “new dangerous phase” of the pandemic with concerns over the transmissibility of the new Covid strain, the prime minister is also being urged to publish advice on schools from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Earlier this month, the government said primary school children and exam-year students would return as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary schools pupils would start the term online before the return of face-to-face teaching on 11 January.
But with the decision still under review, Labour has criticised ministers for leaving millions of pupils, school and college staff in the dark about plans for the reopening of classrooms.
Speaking on the BBC’s World at One programme, professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats group (Nervtag), stressed there had been a “balancing act” since the first lockdown was initially eased to try to keep control of the virus while maintaining “some semblance of normal society”.
“This new variant has just made that more difficult, we have even less wiggle room.
“So it’s not that schools are critically important for the transmission of the virus, it’s just that in order to maintain control with this new variant circulating, which we think is perhaps 50 per cent more transmissible than previous Covid viruses, then we just have that much less leeway in terms of allowing contacts to happen.”
He added: “Schools in that context may be rather critical. Clearly nobody wants to keep schools shut. But if that’s the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations, that may be required at least for a period.”
“There are no easy solutions here — my real concern is that even if universities, schools do have staggered returns, or even if they stay closed, how easy it will be to maintain control of the virus.”
“Unfortunately, I think what we’ve failed to do is address the digital divide among school children such that the opportunity to the provide high quality online education for the poorest parts of the community has been lost,” he said.
“I think we’re going to have to get to schools back, maybe a little bit later, but we’re going to have to have increased restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that.”
On Tuesday, Downing Street said the government is “still planning for a staggered reopening of schools” after the Christmas break, but echoed Michael Gove’s comments that the plan is being kept under review.
“We’re still planning for a staggered reopening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place,” the prime minister’s official spokesman told reporters. “As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.”
According to TES, ministers could order schools to delay pupils’ return by at least an extra week – except for vulnerable students and children of key workers.
Under the plans being considered, all secondary students would be back in schools from 18 January while primary schools would reopen as planned next week, the report added.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis, one of the largest multi-academy trusts in England, also suggested a delayed reopening.
“We would suggest a week or two’s delay to think it through, to do it well – and we think that if you really care about kids you would do this well – to invest now, to give time now makes sense.”
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP and chair of the Education Committee, said he he “hope(d) very much” that schools would reopen from next week, but also called on the prime minister to “set out a long-term plan for education”.
He told ITV: “I would welcome a statement either from the prime minister or the chief medical officer as to what the scientific evidence is, and also to set out a long-term plan for education – a route map out of this – because we can’t have schools as a revolving door, with parents, the teaching profession and support staff not knowing from one day to the next what is going to happen.”