Michael Gove has admitted that plans for children in England to return to school within the next fortnight are “under review” as the government’s scientific advisers urge a delay to the start of the new term.
Under the current plan, children will go back to primary school in the week of January 4, along with those doing GCSEs and A-levels, vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers. Other secondary school pupils will return to classes the following week, starting January 11.
Schools are expected to test millions of pupils for Covid-19 at the start of the new term as part of a staggered rollout of mass testing.
But Mr Gove, Cabinet Office minister, told Times Radio on Monday that ministers would be speaking to headteachers over the next 48 hours to ensure that the plans were “right and robust”, adding: “We do keep things under review.”
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, is also expected to meet Downing Street officials on Monday to consider the question of whether schools in tier 4 areas should remain closed until February.
It emerged on Monday that scientists have urged Boris Johnson, the UK’s prime minister, to keep secondary schools closed in January because of concerns about a new, more virulent strain of coronavirus.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said that the R rate — at which the virus reproduces — could be kept below the crucial 1 level if schools remained shut. Sage also warned that another national lockdown could be necessary at a meeting last week, according to the Politico website.
Separately, a paper produced last week by some Sage members for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicted “large resurgences” of the virus without further suppression.
“Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown implemented in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction number R to less than 1, unless primary schools, secondary schools and universities are also closed,” it said.
Any such move would be hugely controversial given that Mr Johnson has said it is “vitally important” that children return to school after the disruption to education during the pandemic.
The PM’s language appeared to shift last week at a press conference when he said ministers would retain the current plan “if we possibly can”.
But one senior figure said on Monday that it was still a priority to get children back to school. “We have a huge, huge, huge programme of mass testing in order for that to happen, that still remains until and unless otherwise,” he added.
Teaching unions have also called for a delay to the reopening of schools. NASUWT, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, urged Mr Williamson to permit headteachers to move to online learning and asked the government to “publish new safety guidance for schools in light of the increased risk posed by the [new Covid-19] variant”.
The National Education Union has called on the government not to reopen classrooms until all children are tested for Covid-19 — which, if implemented, would mean a delay of at least two weeks.
Additional reporting by Anna Gross