Home Secretary Priti Patel prompted fresh fears on Tuesday that schools could stay shut for the whole of January when she said pupils would ‘eventually’ return to classrooms.
A Government source had said on Monday that schools could end up staying closed until February amid fears that children are more likely to catch the new mutant strain of coronavirus.
Number 10, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson have pinned their hopes on schools being able to return with a mass testing programme for pupils.
Ordinarily after the Christmas break, children would return to schools in the first week of January but this date was recently pushed back to January 11.
But when asked about when classrooms would re-open in the New Year, Ms Patel only said that pupils would ‘eventually’ return as she pinned hopes on the mass testing regime.
In what was the latest bad news for Britain’s pupils, it also emerged:
- Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out keeping classrooms closed after the Christmas break
- Boris Johnson also refused to rule out keeping schools closed indefinitely
- University students are more at risk of coronavirus in halls of residence than house-shares or on campus
- Children are more likely to catch the mutant strain of Covid: Government advisers say youngsters and adults are ‘equally susceptible’ to the new variant – but there is no proof it is deadlier
Home Secretary Priti Patel prompted fresh fears on Tuesday that schools could stay shut for the whole of January when she said pupils would ‘eventually’ return to classrooms
She told Sky News: ‘We want to keep schools open, let me be clear about that, but we will take all the appropriate measures around protecting children, the health of children and also protecting teachers and the rest of the population as well around schools.
‘But I do want to emphasise the role that mass testing plays.
‘Mass testing is up and running across the country as we know and we have been obviously speaking about mass testing in schools and that is something that is under discussion right now across Government for January and when the schools eventually go back.’
When asked about when classrooms would re-open in the New Year, Ms Patel only said that pupils would ‘eventually’ return as she pinned hopes on the mass testing regime
The Home Secretary also insisted on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Government is ‘determined’ to keep schools open.
‘Well the Government is clear in our determination to have schools open and keep them open,’ she said.
University students more at risk of coronavirus in halls of residence than house-shares or on campus
Students are more at risk of catching the coronavirus in halls of residence than in private house-shares or at lecture theatres or classrooms on campus, research suggests.
Figures published on Monday by the Office for National Statistics show that the biggest spikes in infections in Exeter and Loughborough in the second wave was seen among students in halls.
Fewer cases were traced back to student houses or to teaching facilities at the university, they showed.
And separate surveys asking students about their behaviour and mental health found that the majority of them tried to stick to social distancing rules and that over half said their mental health had got worse during the pandemic.
She added that ‘everyone’ is worried about the new strain of the virus, which it is feared may be up to 70 per cent more infectious.
‘But we are also speaking now about mass testing in schools and if you recall last week in parts of London, testing did come to schools.
‘Mass testing is being rolled out and that will continue,’ she said.
The Home Secretary added that she wanted schools to be ‘safe environments’.
It comes after Government sources told The Telegraph on Monday that an extra delay to the return of school children in the New Year may now be necessary.
Mr Williamson had already put the return back by a week.
One source said: ‘They are looking at staggering schools for longer, possibly for all of January.
‘The focus mainly has been on secondary schools, but they are not there yet. The discussions are ongoing.’
The source added that pupils’ return depended on ‘finding more from the data’.
On Monday, Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London and member of Number 10’s advisory group NERVTAG, said there was a ‘hint’ children were more susceptible to the new strain of coronavirus.
Ferguson, who became known as ‘Professor Lockdown’, was instrumental in the UK’s first shutdown in March but stepped down from his position on SAGE after flaunting guidance to visit his married lover.
Children have so far barely been affected by the pandemic.
But speaking a virtual media briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre, on Monday, Professor Ferguson said: ‘There is a hint that it is has a higher propensity to infect children.
‘That may perhaps explain some of the differences but we haven’t established any sort of causality.’
On Monday, Mr Johnson refused to commit to welcoming students back on the agreed date of January 11.
At the weekend union leaders said the return of secondary schools should be delayed for two weeks to give time for infection rates to fall
Speaking at the coronavirus press briefing, the Prime Minister said: ‘Obviously we want if we possibly can to get schools back in a staggered way in January in the way we have set out, but the common sense thing to do is follow the path of the pandemic and keep things under constant review.
‘But it is very important to get kids and keep kids in education as much as you possibly can.’
Children may be more easily infected by new mutant coronavirus strain
By Victoria Allen, Science Correspondent for the Daily Mail
Children may be more easily infected by the new mutant strain of coronavirus, scientists have suggested.
The virus has been less of a problem for children until now because it finds it harder to get into their bodies.
But the new strain is suspected by scientists to more efficiently infect them, potentially making them ‘equally susceptible’ to adults.
Children mix more frequently and this could help to explain figures showing about one in 50 13 to 17-year-olds in England have the virus.
However, experts stress this is a ‘hypothesis’ only, and they do not yet know definitively whether the new strain is more likely to infect children.
Importantly, the new variant is believed not to make people more ill, and children rarely suffer severe symptoms.
Yesterday, Professor Wendy Barclay, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) and head of the department of infectious disease at Imperial College London, said the new virus strain may be better at getting into cells, putting youngsters on a ‘more level playing field’.
She added: ‘Children are equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults, and therefore given their mixing patterns, you would expect to see more children being infected.
‘It’s not because the virus is specifically targeting them, but it’s just that it’s now less inhibited to get into the children.’
Professor Neil Ferguson, the scientist who caused controversy by breaking lockdown rules in the first wave and is also on Nervtag, said yesterday there had been a ‘shift’ in the pattern of age groups with Covid.
He said: ‘There is a hint that it has a higher propensity to infect children – that may perhaps explain some of the differences.
‘We haven’t established any sort of causality on that, but we can see that in the data.’
Britain’s largest teaching union demanded classes be moved online for two weeks after Christmas to give school staff the chance to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
The National Education Union (NEU) called on the Government to cancel face-to-face lessons for a fortnight at the beginning of the new term – with online learning to continue until January 18.
Union chiefs said the switch to online lessons, for all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, will help reduce cases amongst students.
They also demanded that a mass-testing programme, which has already been promised by ministers, be fully functional before students return to school.
In an open letter, signed by joint secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the union chiefs said: ‘The National Education Union would like to discuss three steps with you that we believe could radically reduce the overall disruption to education across the Spring Term.
‘Firstly, we believe that you should allow and encourage heads in ensuring that first two weeks of learning should be online, apart from key worker and vulnerable children, to allow cases to fall further and to allow time to properly set up the system of mass testing.
‘Secondly, we believe that you should ask the local Directors of Public Health to set the system of mass testing.
‘Thirdly, we believe that you should use that two-week period to begin to vaccinate education staff, alongside NHS and care staff.
‘Part of the disruption to education, and the extra stress on school leaders, is caused both by the relatively high levels of staff absence due to the virus and self-isolation and by the fear that vulnerable staff have about working without PPE or social distancing.’
In the letter, the union chiefs added: ‘We want to work with the Government to ensure that children who are positive do not infect other children who might then infect their families or the school staff.
‘We do have a proper concern for school and college staff that have no PPE or effective social distancing in their classroom settings, as well as for the parents and carers of the children they teach.
‘Reducing infections in school and college would also mean attendance would be higher than the low levels we were seeing last term.
‘We support the desire of the Government to have an accurate and effective system of mass testing which could ensure that children who were asymptomatic but positive did not return to the classroom until they were no longer infectious, and which could find asymptomatic cases in further weeks as well.
‘However, we are concerned that such a system will not be in place for January 4.’
It comes after the government last week announced a mass testing scheme in schools and colleges, along with the staggered return of students, after Christmas.
From January 4, staff in secondary schools will have access to weekly rapid lateral flow tests.
Students and staff will be eligible for daily testing for seven days if identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.
Primary schools are expected to follow the testing regime from April.
Up to 11million lateral flow tests will be available to schools and colleges from January 4, providing capacity for up to 5.5million children and young people to be tested in the new year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed today.
The Armed Forces will be drafted into help the mass-testing effort.