Boris Johnson has said he hopes it will be safe to reopen schools in England from 8 March, as the prime minister revealed to MPs when he intends to set out his plan for easing lockdown.
In a COVID-19 statement to the Commons, the PM said ministers “do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy”.
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But he expressed hope that children could return from Monday, 8 March, provided the government meets its vaccination target of offering a jab to everyone in the top four priority groups by the middle of next month.
And Mr Johnson told MPs that it was the government’s intention to set out its plan for easing lockdown in the week beginning 22 February.
Confirming there would be no return to school for children after the February half-term, the PM said: “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.”
Mr Johnson said he knew “how frustrating that will be for pupils and teachers who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom”, as well as parents and carers who have “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”.
Given the government has made the return of pupils to the classroom a priority, the PM’s comments indicate that lockdown measures will remain in place until at least the second week of March.
The PM said the country remains in a “perilous situation” with COVID-19, but things should be clearer by the middle of next month.
“By then we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths,” he explained.
The PM said now was 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 told MPs.
The PM added that the government would take a “gradual and phased approach” to easing lockdown.
Relaxing measures, Mr Johnson emphasised, would 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”.
The PM also used his Commons statement to announce that UK nationals and residents returning from “red list” countries will be placed in quarantine in government-provided accommodation – such as hotels – for 10 days.
Schools in England have been closed for all pupils, apart from the children of key workers and those who are vulnerable, during the country’s third lockdown.
A return in February was suggested by the PM as a possibility when he announced the shutdown, but ministers in recent weeks had pointedly declined to give a firm date for primary schools returning.
In an interview with Sky News last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to guarantee that they would reopen before Easter.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for teachers and support staff, along with other key workers, to be prioritised for a coronavirus jab over the February half-term, once those in the top four priority groups have been inoculated.
The party says the move should form part of a “national effort” to get pupils back in the classroom.
Responding to the PM’s statement, Sir Keir took issue with Mr Johnson challenging him at Prime Ministers’ Questions to declare that schools are safe.
He said: “Even for this prime minister, it’s quite something to open schools one day, close them the next, to call them vectors of transmission and then to challenge me to say that schools he’s closed are safe.
“Only now to give a statement where he says that schools can’t open until March 8 at the earliest because it’s not safe to do so.”
Referencing the fact that the UK has now passed 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the Labour leader added: “That’s his analysis, it’s the sort of nonsense that’s led us to the highest death toll in Europe and the worst recession.”
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