Downing Street has fuelled fears that England’s schools will be closed until least early March despite calls for a firm plan for them to reopen.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman today confirmed a review of lockdown measures in England will happen “on February 15”.
This clarified earlier comments from Boris Johnson, who this morning told reporters “we’ll be deciding before [February 15] whether we can be getting schools back.”
But crucially, the PM’s spokesman also stood by the government’s pledge to give schools two weeks’ notice before they reopen.
That suggests that if the government keeps both promises, England’s schools will not be able to reopen until March 1 at the earliest – because a decision won’t have been made until February 15 at the earliest.
That is despite the government originally hoping schools would be able to reopen from February 22.
It comes as pressure mounts on the Prime Minister to spell out a roadmap for schools’ return and avoid a lost generation of learning.
Schools are only open to key workers’ and vulnerable children during the third national lockdown, to stop schools seeding infection in the wider community.
But the government is almost 500,000 devices short of its pledge to distribute 1.3million laptops and other pieces of kit.
The Children’s Commissioner and MPs warned those learning from home will be the “forgotten victims” of the pandemic.
Boris Johnson sparked confusion about any reopening date today when he appeared to suggest some restrictions could ease before February 15.
The Prime Minister said: “Before then we’ll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures.”
But a No10 source later said it was the “looking at”, not the easing, that would happen before February 15.
And the PM’s spokesman has now gone further, saying a review will only happen “on February 15”.
The spokesman told reporters: “We will undertake the review on the 15th.
“That will obviously take into account all the latest evidence and data that we’ll look at in the run-up to the 15th. Then we will set out what happens post the 15th.”
Schools will be the “top priority” for reopening, the spokesman said – but he did not give a cast-iron guarantee that they would be the very first lockdown measure to ease.
Twice the spokesman was asked to clarify if it was impossible for schools to reopen before March – given the review is only on February 15, and ministers want to give two weeks’ notice.
The first time he replied: “We will do everything we can to give schools as much notice as possible before they open so they can put plans in place for them to reopen.”
The second time he replied: “We will give schools as much notice as possible before they reopen.
“Again, I would point back to what the Prime Minister said this morning, that we want to see children back in school as fast as possible but we need to do so in a way that’s consistent with keeping the infection rate down.”
It comes after reports that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will this week rule out kids going back to lessons after the February half-term.
Neither the Prime Minister nor Mr Williamson have ruled out the possibility of schools only returning after the Easter holidays in April.
National Education Union joint general secretary Kevin Courtney warned any reopening before Easter seemed “optimistic” adding: “It could be as late as May.”
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “Getting pupils back in the classroom safely must be a national priority, and it is time for the Government to work with the profession to develop a credible plan to make this happen.”