Free school meals have been extended, the Prime Minister announced as he confirmed pupils will not go back in February and England’s lockdown will drag into March.
Boris Johnson has told MPs it will not be possible to reopen schools “immediately after the February half term”.
He said he hoped it would be safe to begin the reopening of England’s schools from March 8.
The Prime Minister said the Government would set out plans in the week beginning February 22 for the “gradual and phased” route out of lockdown.
England’s third national lockdown will last until at least March 8 and possibly even longer, depending on the success of the vaccine rollout Mr Johnson confirmed.
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He told the Commons on Wednesday afternoon: “The first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms. I know how parents and teachers need as much certainty as possible including two weeks’ notice of the return of face-to-face teaching.
“So I must inform the House that for the reasons I have outlined it will not be possible to reopen schools immediately after the February half-term.
“But I know how frustrating that will be for pupils and teachers who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom.
“And for parents and for carers who spent so many months juggling their day jobs, not only with home schooling but meeting the myriad other demands of their children from breakfast until bedtime.”
The Prime Minister said he hopes classrooms can reopen after March 8.
Mr Johnson added: “If we achieve our target of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups with their first dose by February 15, and every passing day sees more progress towards that goal, then those groups (will) have developed immunity from the virus about three-weeks later, that is by March 8.
“We hope it will therefore be safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday, March 8.
“With other economic and social restrictions being removed thereafter as and when the data permits… then or thereafter I should say.”
Extending the lockdown, he told MPs that the shutdown appears to have reduced the critical R rate, but “we do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy”
More than 37,000 patients are currently in hospital with coronavirus, almost double the peak of the first wave, he added.
The overall picture should be “clearer” by mid-February, he said, adding: “By then we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths.”
He continued: “So I can tell the House that when Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22nd February subject to the full agreement of the House, we intend to set out the results of that review and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown. That plan will of course depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, the capacity of the NHS and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated.”
Mr Johnson acknowledged the extension of the lockdown would be “deeply frustrating” and “disappointing” to many.
He added: “But the way forward has been clear ever since the vaccines arrived and as we inoculate more people hour by hour, this is the time to hold our nerve in the end game of the battle against the virus.
“Our goal now must be to buy the extra weeks we need to immunise the most vulnerable and get this virus under control so that together we can defeat this most wretched disease, reclaim our lives once and for all.”
Mr Johnson also announced new border restrictions for travellers arriving in the UK from certain countries.
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The Prime Minister told the Commons: “I want to make clear that under the stay at home regulations, it is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes and we will enforce this at ports and airports by asking people why they are leaving and instructing them to return home if they do not have a valid reason to travel.
“We have also banned all travel from 22 countries where there is a risk of known variants including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations.
“And in order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in Government provided accommodation, such as hotels, for 10 days without exception.
“They will be met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine. The Department of Health and Social Care is working to establish these facilities as quickly as possible.”
“That’s a scarcely believable toll on the British people.
“In isolation any of these mistakes are perhaps understandable. Taken together it’s a damning indictment of how the Government has handled this pandemic.”