Boris Johnson has declined to guarantee that all children would be back in school before the summer holidays – but expressed “optimism and fundamental hope” that things will be different in the spring.
All schools in England have been closed until February half term as part of the latest nationwide lockdown – except for vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers.
The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference that there was a “prospect” the lockdown could be eased in mid-February as he pinned his hopes on a rapid vaccine rollout.
As of Tuesday, 1.3million Brits have had the jab, including 23% of people over 80-years-old.
But grim figures revealed one in 50 people in England are estimated to be infected with Covid-19 last week – more than a million people.
Mr Johnson has come under fire for sending primary school pupils back for only one day before making a major u-turn on Monday night.
But he told the press conference that the public would understand that said he had “no choice” but to impose the lockdown
Defending the move, Mr Johnson said: “It was clear that we got to a situation where Tier 4 on its own couldn’t be relied upon to get the virus under control and that’s without really going the whole way and asking people to stay at home and, sadly, to close schools as well.
“That’s why we took the step that we did.”
Asked to guarantee that all pupils will be back in classrooms before the summer holidays, the Prime Minister said: “We think that with the vaccination programme we can do a huge amount to take out of the path of the virus those who are most vulnerable.
“That clearly offers opportunities to our country to do things differently, to approach to non-pharmaceutical interventions very differently.
“I am full of the same optimism and fundamental hope about the position that I think Chris (Whitty) has adopted and I really think that things will be very different in the spring.
“That is what I would certainly say to every parent in the land.”
England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty sought to reassure the public that there was no evidence of increased hospitalisation among children due to the new variant.
He said: “One thing that we do not think is that this new variant is any more dangerous for children than the old variant is.
“There’s no evidence, for example, that the hospitals are filling up with children.
“There is always a risk with any infection to people of all ages but children are relatively much less affected than other groups, which is one of the few good things you can say about coronavirus, and that will be important obviously when schools can go back.”
Schools are closed to most pupils in Scotland until February after Nicola Sturgeon imposed a lockdown for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home.
Schools and colleges in Wales will also remain closed until at least January 18 and move to online learning, while in Northern Ireland – which is already under a six-week lockdown – “stay at home” restrictions will be brought back into law and a period of remote learning for schoolchildren will be extended.