Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty tonight insisted the risk posed by coronavirus to children at school is ‘incredibly low’ as he ‘categorically denied’ a claim he opposed a full return to classrooms on March 8.
The Government’s top medical advisor said there are ‘huge advantages’ to reopening schools in terms of the mental and physical health benefits for children as well as for their education.
He said falling infection rates meant that ‘there is some headroom’ to resume face-to-face lessons next month and that ‘everything is strongly in favour of children, whether primary or secondary, of going to school’.
Professor Whitty’s comments came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed that secondary pupils will undergo a ‘testing blitz’ and be required to wear face masks in classrooms ‘for several weeks’.
Secondary pupils will be tested three times at school and once at home during the first fortnight before being asked to continue testing themselves twice a week at home under Government proposals.
They will be allowed to return to class as soon as they have received a negative test result, while all teachers at primary and secondary level – as well as early years – will be entitled to twice-weekly testing at home.
Mr Johnson revealed his roadmap out of the third national lockdown in a statement to the Commons this afternoon, promising a ‘cautious but irreversible’ easing of lockdown and calling it ‘a one way road to freedom’.
However, the Prime Minister’s plans were immediately criticised by teaching unions who wanted a phased return to classes and accused Mr Johnson of ‘failing to learn the lessons of his previous mistakes’.
In other coronavirus developments:
- Covid cases have risen for the first time in six weeks with 10,641 new infections in 24 hours, while deaths tumbled to 178 in the lowest toll since December 13. The UK’s vaccine rollout also dished out just 150,000 jabs in its worst performance yet;
- Couples and suppliers must wait until March 8 to have weddings and receptions with up to just six people – with unrestricted big days not set to occur before June 21;
- Teaching unions have demanded Boris Johnson scrap his plan to reopen all schools in England on March 8 in favour of a more cautious phased return to classrooms;
- Mr Zahawi said that the government was hoping this will be the last ‘severe’ coronavirus lockdown in England;
- Labour has insisted it supports schools reopening in full on March 8 despite opposition from teaching unions and Sir Keir Starmer saying there must be a considered approach;
- One in three adults have received a Covid jab as the government brings forward its target for vaccinating the whole population to July;
- Scientists have hailed early data showing the vaccines reduce transmission of coronavirus as well as easing its effects;
- The funeral of Captain Sir Tom Moore will be held on Saturday, in what the family said would be a ‘small’ service;
- Surge testing was introduced in Brentwood, Essex, following the discovery of the South African variant in the area.
Professor Chrrs Whitty tonight said he ‘categorically denied’ reports that he was opposed to a ‘big bang’ reopening of schools in England on March 8
The first steps to freedom from lockdown will prioritise reopening schools and reuniting families, Boris Johnson confirmed to the Commons, with all secondary school pupils expected to wear masks in the classroom
Boris, Whitty and Vallance dismiss Tory and business fury at ultra-cautious lockdown ‘roadmap’ saying the country wants ‘certainty not urgency’ – with shops, salons and drinks outside from April 12 but no foreign travel before mid-MAY or hugs until June
Boris Johnson batted away complaints from Tories and business tonight after unveiling an ultra-cautious ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown by June – with schools reopening in a fortnight but little else set to change for months.
Flanked by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance as he defended his long-awaited four-phase exit strategy at a No10 briefing, the PM stated that ‘Covid zero’ was not possible and the return to normality must begin even though cases will rise.
However, Mr Johnson made clear he was prioritising ‘certainty over urgency’, saying he is being as ‘dynamic as possible in the circumstances’ and the ‘crocus of hope’ is starting to appear. Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick said there are still very significant numbers of people infected with Covid and going to fast risked the outbreak spiralling again.
The premier confirmed that all schools in England will reopen from March 8 as the first step on the ‘one-way road to freedom’.
But secondary pupils will need to wear masks in class for ‘weeks’ after the move – and there are precious few other easings until Easter, with scientists seemingly having won the battle for a slow approach.
Reports at the weekend suggested Prof Whitty was opposing the ‘big bang’ return but he told a Downing Street press conference tonight that he had ‘categorically denied’ the claim.
Setting out why he supports the return to classrooms next month, he said: ‘First thing is, it is absolutely universally accepted that there are huge advantages for children to be at school from a health point of view, mental and physical, as well as from educational and from a life course point of view.
‘Those are overwhelming, they are not in any dispute, everyone accepts that and if you keep children out of school, every single one of the children you keep out of school is disadvantaged.’
He continued: ‘The second point we made at that time which is still the case is the risk to children is incredibly low from going to school and indeed from catching Covid.
‘Covid, one of the few good things about Covid is the risk to children, whilst not zero, nothing in Covid the risks are zero, the risks are so much smaller than they are for adults and others.
‘Therefore we are confident that schools, given the huge benefits of schools, the very small residual risk is strongly in favour, from the child’s point of view, everything is strongly in favour of children, whether primary or secondary, of going to school and the data on that I think are unambiguous.’
Prof Whitty said that falling case numbers and the R rate of infection meant the Government had some ‘headroom’ to reopen schools.
‘The third question is, and this is the one that led to having to close schools this time around, as it did indeed on the first wave, is the impact this can have on R,’ he said.
‘And the view is that as things are falling down rapidly at the moment there is some headroom to go ahead and the first priority as the Prime Minister has repeatedly said is for schooling and I think everyone would agree with that.’
The reopening of schools is the first step to freedom in Mr Johnson’s lockdown exit roadmap.
The PM said the strategy will ‘guide us cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms’.
Outlining the wearing of masks in schools the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 response document released today states: ‘The Government also recommends that the use of face coverings in Higher Education, Further Education and secondary schools is extended for a limited period to all indoor environments – including classrooms – unless 2m social distancing can be maintained.
‘Face coverings are now also recommended in early years and primary schools for staff and adult visitors in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible, for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas.
‘All children will once again be expected to attend school, as they were in the autumn term.’
The Prime Minister told the Commons: ‘I can tell the house that two weeks from today pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face to face teaching’.
Mr Johnson also said the return of students will be supported by twice weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils.
He told MPs: ‘All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be and that’s why I’ve always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen.
On March 8, all pupils will return to the classroom as part of the first of four steps towards getting the country back on its feet
‘And based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils.
‘Families and childcare bubbles will also be encouraged to get tested regularly.’
Breakfast and after school clubs can also reopen, as well as sports clubs, with Mr Johnson saying this was essential to allow parents to return to work.
The new rules on masks for secondary school pupils comes as the Government seeks to build up parents’ confidence that their children are safe to return to the classroom.
Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation of 48 primary and secondary schools in and around London, said the testing regime for schools would mean not all pupils could return on March 8.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: ‘Although the Prime Minister announced that the students in secondaries would do two tests per week, we’re hearing offline that what this will be is four tests in the first two weeks, three of which will be onsite and one at home, and then after those two weeks it will switch to two tests a week at home.
‘If that’s the case, and we think it is, it will mean a staggered start – it is impossible to have every secondary child back on (March) 8 and test them all.
‘We think we can test probably 150-200 a day in a big secondary school, so we will probably have to stagger the start over a few days so different year groups will come in on different days.
‘In fact, we aim to get the top-end year groups – Year 11 and 13, the A-level and GCSE groups – in on the Friday before to get them tested and then we can speed up the process of return.’
Mr Johnson’s plans for easing lockdown have been bolstered by the latest data whihc shows Covid-19 infection rates have continued to drop, with 9,834 more cases reported – a fall of 10 per cent on last week – while the 215 new daily deaths brought Britain’s total up to 120,580
Mr Johnson said the return of students will be supported by twice weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils
Nine unions unite to scupper school reopening: Militant leaders demand PM ditch plan to reopen all classes in England on March 8 and call for phased return
The NASUWT teachers union today reiterated its call for teachers and other education staff to be given priority access to coronavirus vaccines.
Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT, said: ‘The NASUWT believes it is in the national interest for the government to prioritise teachers and education staff for access to vaccination.’
The National Education Union said in its proposed recovery plan that the return to schools should see numbers allowed on-site limited while there should also be increased use of face coverings.
It also agreed that masks should be worn by secondary school pupils in classrooms as well as in all other areas of the school.
Schools are set to return from March 8 for all pupils in all year groups in England – rather than a staggered approach.
Union bosses are instead urging Mr Johnson to follow the example of Scotland and Wales where the phased return of some young children to classrooms started this morning.
Senior secondary pupils will need to stick to two-metre social distancing within schools and on school buses under the rules on returning to school.
Sir Daniel called the testing criteria a ‘logistical headache’ but one that was ‘worthwhile’ to identify Covid-19 cases and resume face-to-face education.
Mr Johnson tweeted this morning: ‘Our priority has always been getting children back into school which we know is crucial for their education and wellbeing. We’ll also be prioritising ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely.
‘Our decisions will be made on the latest data at every step, and we will be cautious about this approach so that we do not undo the progress we have achieved so far and the sacrifices each and every one of you has made to keep yourself and others safe.’
This afternoon he told the Commons that the threat from Covid ‘remains substantial’ with numbers in hospital only now falling below the peak of the first wave in April.
After speaking about the success of the vaccine roll out, he added: ‘It is a fact lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and more deaths.’
As such, he promised a ‘cautious but irreversible’ easing of lockdown, calling it ‘a one way road to freedom’.
His statement confirmed that the tier system would be dropped with restrictions being eased in all areas across the UK at the same time.
Mr Johson called for a ‘data not dates’ approach, and said all the evidence showed that the classroom was the ‘best place for our children to be’.
Further changes to the current restrictions will be reviewed during the Easter holidays on March 29.
The Prime Ministers plan was met with mixed reaction.
Teachers from the NASUWT Union agreed that masks should be worn by secondary school pupils in classrooms as well as in all other areas of the school.
But they also reiterated their calls for teachers to be prioritised in the vaccine roll out.
But Ian Noon, Head of Policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, called the mandatory masks rules ‘devastating’ for deaf pupils.
He said: ‘With England’s 35,000 deaf pupils close to a return to education, the goalposts on face masks have moved yet again.
‘Public health must take priority, but bringing face masks into classrooms will have a devastating effect on deaf children’s studies, mental health and ability to take part in lessons.
‘The Government cannot make an announcement and expect this to be enough.
‘It must move quickly to show exactly how it will guarantee deaf children can still access their lessons.
‘We cannot have a situation where thousands of deaf children and young people are unable to understand their teacher, leaving many with little point in even attending class.
‘The future of their education is at stake and the clock has already started.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also addressed the Prime Minister over Nightingale classrooms and extra capacity.
He said in the Commons: ‘Can the PM please confirm that the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer support the full reopening of all schools on March 8 and will he commit to publishing all the relevant medical evidence on this issue?’
He added: ‘Will the PM see what more can be done to speed up the vaccination of teachers and school staff to ensure that children and young people not only return to school on March 8 but stay in school having returned.’
Mr Johnson replied that he appreciated his rival’s support over the plans to get pupils back to school, but added that ‘bitter experience’ has taught him that support from Sir Kier is ‘very far from irreversible’.
He told MPs: ‘(Sir Keir) is right to say that it’s a priority to get schools back safely and I’m delighted that he agrees with that, and I can certainly say that that plan for March 8 is supported by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, and it would be a good thing if he could perhaps persuade some of his friends in the unions to say so as well and finally to say that schools are safe.
He added: ‘Overall, I think we can safely say that we’ve had cautious support from the leader of the opposition today, but bitter experience has taught me that his support is very far from irreversible. Who knows what he will be saying next week, but I’m glad of it today.’