Schools could remain closed until the Easter holidays, with children facing another three months away from the classrooms, educations chiefs now fear.
Despite the UK recording another drop in Covid cases, school bosses believe millions of pupils now face the prospect of being home schooled until the start of April. It means students will have faced almost a year of on-and-off disruption to their education.
Fears of an April return were further compounded as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned at the weekend that it would not be possible to start to lift lockdown restrictions in England until March.
And yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock cast more doubt on a March re-opening for schools when he declined to say that a loosening of lockdown rules meant a return for students.
The warning comes as disgruntled Tory backbenchers last night demanded the Government produce an urgent ‘road map’ out of lockdown – with measures due to be lifted in mid-February.
But as the number of people vaccinated reached 4million yesterday and infection figures continued to fall, with Britain recording another 37,535 new cases, down a fifth from last Monday, Boris Johnson last night defied fresh demands to say how and when the brutal restrictions in England will ease.
Meanwhile, Government sources last night said it was too early to say when schools would reopen, with one source saying: ‘It’s about what the health picture is. If lockdown does its job then schools could be the first thing to open.’
The Prime Minister has repeatedly vowed that the reopening of schools will be his priority when lockdown is eased – but no date has ever been set.
And now the leader of a major academy chain has warned the ‘mood’ is for schools to shut until the Easter holidays – at the start of April.
Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis academy chain, which runs 48 schools, said: ‘I don’t think schools will reopen until post Easter. I think they will miss the second half of term as well.’
The warning came as in other coronavirus developments:
- The Covid-19 mass vaccine programme will not have an impact on hospital admissions or death rates until ‘well into February’, national medical director for NHS England Stephen Powis warned today;
- Ministers are facing a major Tory revolt over whether to extend the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit during pandemic;
- First Minister Mark Drakeford has defended the slower rollout of the vaccination programme in Wales – saying the Pfizer vaccine could not be used all at once;
- Matt Hancock told a Downing Street briefing there should be a ‘national debate’ on which groups should be prioritised for the vaccine once the over-50s have received the jab;
- Coronavirus was the leading cause of death in England last year and accounted for one in eight fatalities, official data has revealed;
- There has been chaos at airports as the new rules on negative tests came into force.
Mr Chalke meanwhile said many teachers are very worried about catching Covid in school and that they will feel ‘safer’ and ‘more confident’ when the weather warms up and they can take children out of the classroom more.
At yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock was asked whether schools would reopen in March.
He simply said: ‘We’ve got to watch the data, and the Prime Minister, when he brought in the national lockdown, set out four considerations. We’ve got to see the number of deaths coming down, and sadly we haven’t seen that yet. We need to clearly see the pressure on the NHS reducing, and we are not seeing that yet.
‘We must see the vaccination programme working and the rollout is going really well.’ He continued: ‘The fourth consideration is that there mustn’t be some other new variant.’
Professor Susan Hopkins, senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said: ‘We’ve always said the schools should be the last to close and first to open.
‘But I think giving a more defined date than that is very difficult until we see what happens over the next few weeks.’
Last night Robert Halfon, Tory MP and chairman of the education committee, said: ‘The Government said that schools would reopen after the February half term. Everything possible should be done to keep to that date – for the sake of the children’s education, mental health and safety.
‘That is why ministers should prioritise school staff for the vaccine, and send in mobile units to jab them across the country.’
Mr Johnson said there would be no ‘open sesame’ relaxation of lockdown. ‘I understand completely that people want to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can,’ he said.
The Prime Minister insisted that things would look ‘very different by the spring’, adding: ‘I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great open sesame, in a great bang, because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.’
SOURCE: Daily Mail by James Robinson, Jack Wright and Daniel Martin