Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure from his split cabinet, teachers and unions to shut schools through January despite parents’ desperate pleas not to ‘cruelly’ rob their children of a classroom education after a year of immense disruption, it was revealed today.
The Prime Minister is considering consigning millions of children to more ‘inadequate’ online learning that the head of Ofsted believes sets back children ‘years’, particularly those from working class backgrounds. Experts say that months at home during the first lockdown saw many youngsters regress academically, socially and developmentally.
SAGE scientists have urged Mr Johnson to impose an even tougher third national lockdown including keeping all schools closed throughout January to curb the new mutant coronavirus strain as it emerged 1,500 military personnel would be deployed to ensure that testing systems were up and running by the time pupils returned for the new term in January.
But the majority of MoD staff will only offer advice on the phone or Zoom about the testing process and setting up facilitis, and will only visit schools when there are ‘major issues’. There are already major questions about whether this will actually keep schools open.
The SAGE warning is said to have spooked Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove who are both said to have suggested that the reopening of schools might have to be delayed as daily infections hit 40,000, according to The Times.
In a meeting hosted by No 10, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson argued that they must stick to the plan of a staggered start to the new term, with children in years 11 and 13, and those with key worker parents, going to secondary school from Monday with the rest returning on January 11. Primary Schools would open as usual on January 4.
Nicola Mason, head of Chase Terrace Academy in Burntwood, Staffordshire, has said the Government’s mass testing plans for secondary schools with the support of the military had lead to a lot of ‘stress and panic’ for teachers.
She told BBC Breakfast: ‘Things have just come through to schools very late and it has certainly lead to a lot of stress and a lot of panic over the Christmas holidays to try and get people recruited.’ Ms Mason said her school had some community volunteers to help them carry out the testing programme ‘but we’ve still got nowhere near enough. I’m not sure we will be able to do all of that in the four days that we’ve got before children come back’.
Andy Byers, headteacher at Framwellgate School in Durham, told The Times that he plans to test children in the sports hall, but has not been time to recruit, and vet the criminal records, of new staff with term due to start in four working days. He said: ‘Teachers need to plan. If the government is now thinking of a longer lockdown, it is reasonable to tell us in the next two or three days. We appreciate these decisions are difficult but putting them off makes it worse.’
Pepe Di’Iasio, head teacher of Wales High School in South Yorkshire said: ‘We were all hoping that today we would receive some certainty from the education secretary. Instead we got more uncertainty. I’m meant to be writing letters to our staff, the parents, our governors, telling them what we are going to do. Right now, I’ve no idea what those letters will say’.
NASUWT, The Teachers’ Union, and National Education Union (NEU), have both written to Mr Williamson demanding that schools are shut to allow coronavirus testing to take place and for teachers to be vaccinated, leading to claims they are ‘bent on exploiting the pandemic for political advantage’.
The chaos over schools came as:
- Britain could be put into ‘Tier 5’ restrictions – with England’s hospitals are now treating more Covid patients than they ever did in the first wave;
- The UK recorded 41,385 cases yesterday, in the largest one-day increase since the pandemic began. Department of Health bosses also recorded 357 more Covid deaths;
- But in better news the head of the NHS believes all Britons over the age of 50 could be vaccinated by the spring;
Boris Johnson has been put under pressure to delay opening schools by ministers including Michael Gove who yesterday opened the door to more online learning for children
Gavin Williamson was all smiles as he arrived for a meeting at No 10 Downing Street yesterday to discuss opening schools in January. He wants schools to reopen as planned
Keeping schools shut in January will harm children’s prospects, ministers were warned last night (file image)
Military is drafted in to test thousands of children for Covid so schools can reopen
All Britons over the age of 50 could be vaccinated by spring, the head of the NHS has claimed, adding that medics are ‘in the eye of the storm’ as hospitalisations and cases pass first wave peaks.
NHS England data shows 20,426 hospital beds were occupied by patients who had tested positive for coronavirus as of 8am yesterday morning, up from around 17,700 exactly a week ago.
And the UK recorded 41,385 cases of Covid yesterday, in the largest one-day increase since the pandemic began.
Hospital bosses have begged the public not to party on New Year, with fears of any gatherings leading to another surge in infections.
Yet despite the chaos, the controversial Nightingale hospitals, built at great expense, are being quietly dismantled as there are not enough staff to run them. The majority of the seven £220 million Nightingale hospitals are yet to start treating Covid-19 patients in the second wave and the facility at London’s Excel centre has already been stripped of its beds and ventilators.
NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens has described 2020 as the ‘toughest year’ the health service had ever faced – but also shared optimism that the situation would improve by spring, with 22 million Britons potentially vaccinated.
He said: ‘Many of us will have lost family, friends, colleagues and, at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating, a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired.
‘And now, again, we are back in the eye of the storm with a second wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe and, indeed, this country.’
The head of one of the UK’s biggest teaching unions has called for schools to remain closed until Covid-19 testing schemes have been set up properly.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: ‘Eminent scientists have said that schools should remain closed; that’s what unions I think have been responding to.’
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: ‘None of this is to create problems because we know those tests are going to help more young people to keep from being disrupted – it’s a really good idea.’
Mr Barton welcomed the Government’s plans for soldiers to offer remote support for testing, but warned it was unlikely to be enough.
‘We’re educationists, we can support the Government and it is good we are going to have some members of the Army,’ he said.
‘But for 3,500 secondary schools, 1,500 troops doing webinars probably isn’t the Government response that we were looking for’.
Former teacher and current school governor Calvin Robinson, writing in the Mail today, said: ‘For secondary pupils, the announcement yesterday that many schools may not open fully until after the February half-term holiday is a cruel and deeply unnecessary blow.
‘I fear hundreds of thousands of young people will spend the rest of their lives paying for this disastrous decision, foisted on the Government by callous and opportunistic unions bent on exploiting the pandemic for political advantage’.
Speaking on Good Morning Britain today, Independent Sage’s Dr Zubaida Haque said: ‘I don’t think it should be a question about whether schools should be open or shut, I think they key question is are schools safe enough right now?
‘Can the government make schools safer? And in making it safer, can we then keep schools open. So we are in a crisis situation right now, the Government has delayed opening parliament because we are in a crisis situation and yet yesterday we had Michael Gove saying no it is fine and that we are going to have schools open next week and we are going to have a staggered return.
‘And frankly that is not acceptable and it is not safe, not until we make schools safe.’
Asked how schools can be made safe, she said: ‘Since June, Independent Sage have been saying we need to have smaller classrooms, we need to have children spreading out much more across many more different classes as opposed to 30 children in one class.
‘Social distancing is impossible in that way. We need better ventilation, we need face masks for secondary school children in classroom and we need more laptops for students so they can do remote learning.’
The row over schools has sparked more uncertainty for students and their parents, who face having to home educate children often while trying to hold down a full-time job with just a few days’ notice. But schools have said they don’t believe they are ready to open safely, despite a pledge to send in the Army to test thousands of children for Covid so schools can reopen.
Michael Gove said yesterday that only children in years 11 and 13, and those with key worker parents, will go to school from Monday – with only primary schools expected to open as usual.
But he has also sparked fears that secondary schools could remain closed for longer than a week after admitting the plan to reopen them all on January 11 is already ‘under review’ amid rumours that students in Tier 4 could be at home until the mid-February half-term.
Opening the door to longer closures, Mr Gove said: ‘We do keep things under review and we will be talking to head teachers and teachers in the next 24 and 48 hours just to make sure that our plans which of course are accompanied by community testing are right and robust. It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible. But we all know that there are trade-offs’.
The Government has bowed to pressure from teachers and unions who demanded that secondary school children should be taught online after the Christmas holidays to allow coronavirus testing to take place and for teachers to be vaccinated. Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that the reopening of schools in England should be delayed by at least a fortnight.
Pressure has also been growing on Boris Johnson from within his own party to keep all pupils in school at the start the new term – but the PM has sided with SAGE scientists, who are pushing for schools, especially secondary schools to close for all of January, at least, because of the new super-strain of Covid-19, according to Politico.
Mr Johnson was reportedly told last week by SAGE, led by Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, that a stricter lockdown is required because the one in November, where schools remained open, did not keep the ‘R’ rate below 1, an adviser has claimed. Sage wants all schools, but ideally secondaries, shut for a month while keeping pubs and all non-essential shops closed.
But one Tory backbencher told the Telegraph: ‘The view of most Tory MPs is that schools do need to stay open. We know that schools being open does increase the R rate. The question is, is that a price we are willing to pay and in my view it should be. Frankly, children don’t get harmed so why on earth should we punish them?’ Tory MP Robert Halfon, education select committee chairman, said: ‘The Government’s got to do everything possible not to close schools.’ He said school closures risked ‘damaging the life chances of our next generation’.
Many parents have slammed the standard and frequency of online classes for the millions of children forced to stay at home during 2020, while critics have said that by agreeing to shut schools it will now make it increasingly difficult for No 10 to reopen them again.
It will consign millions of students to virtual classes, which experts believe means children, particularly from working class backgrounds, are being set back ‘years’ because of sub-standard online learning.
One mother told the MailOnline: ‘I would like to register my disgust and outrage at SAGE wanting to keep schools closer till beyond February. As a mother whose three children have all been detrimentally affected by these lockdowns, I can no longer stay silent.
‘As a private tutor, I am telling you that online teaching is absolutely devoid of merit. During the last lockdown, a full school day was replaced by what was in effect two hours of online teaching. Teachers never responded to my child’s queries, his homework was rarely marked.
‘I am currently paying for very expensive maths and science tuition to safeguard his future. Sage are handling this entire pandemic appallingly. Locking people up for months on end clearly is not working. I am absolutely fuming.’
Taking to Mumsnet, parents slammed the SAGE demand, with one writing: ‘We’ve been in tier 3 forever. There hasn’t been a single.case at my daughter’s school. But also home schooling didn’t work.
‘They set a maths and literacy worksheet a day which then fizzled out towards summer and that was it. That wasn’t education and I’ve noticed the regression as a result.
Another said: ‘Secondary will be online at first, which is fine, but if I have to go back to the first lockdown situation where I’m trying to work and homeschool a primary aged child it will be awful.
‘My work say all the right things but were in practice incredibly demanding and my ‘poor performance’ over that time is still regularly being raised. I’d rather risk covid (low risk household) than further jeopardise my job.
Last week, one described how the first lockdown in March, which saw schools closed nationwide, ‘nearly broke me’. They added that the ‘guilt’ they felt at seeing their child ‘in front of a screen for 10 hours a day’ was ‘unendurable’.
Former headteacher Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, said last week that the school closures were ‘disastrous and catastrophic’ for the nation’s poorest children and that teaching unions were ‘playing a political game’.
Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Ms Spielman said earlier this month that online learning and repeated periods of isolation have ‘chipped away’ at the progress pupils have been able to make since returning to school in September – and that there is ‘no substitute’ to classroom learning.
Department of Health statistics show 18,227 Covid-infected patients were being cared for in hospitals across the nation on Christmas Eve – a 15 per cent rise in a week. Top officials say the highly infectious strain spreading rapidly across the country is to blame. For comparison, April 12 was the busiest day of the pandemic so far for hospitals in England, when 18,974 patients were occupying beds
Data shows how daily Covid admissions to to hospitals across the UK have risen since the end of November, after they dipped briefly because of England’s national lockdown
Teachers and key workers ‘will be added to priority list when Oxford vaccine is approved’
Teachers and key workers are ‘expected to be added to the coronavirus vaccine priority list when the Oxford University jab is approved’.
The government is believed to be planning to overhaul the current order, which is focusing on the elderly, vulnerable and care home employees.
Teachers and some key workers will be eligible for injections, according to The Sun.
Before it has onlyu been given to the elderly, unwell or health and care home workers.
But Sage expert Sir Jeremy Farrar warned even if Britain hits one million vaccinations a week it will not curb the pandemic by February.
Mr Gove has said that reopening schools in January will involve ‘trade-offs’ with other coronavirus restrictions.
The staggered return was announced on December 17 – but
‘It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘We are talking to teachers and head teachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.
‘As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school.
‘But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.
‘We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and were are working with teachers to deliver it.’
Scientists have warned that the new coronavirus mutation appears to spread quickly among youngsters, and schools had high rates of infection before the Christmas holidays.
But several senior Tories have told the PM that it should be his priority to keep all schools open even if it drives the ‘R’ infection rate upwards.
Unions have asked that all schools should be closed for the first two weeks to allow coronavirus testing to take place and for teachers to be vaccinated –
Scientists say that schools being open are likely to keep the ‘R’ rate at or above 1.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, has said the arguments for reopening schools in January were ‘very finely balanced’.
Is the new Covid super-strain more dangerous for children?
The new coronavirus strain may be ‘particularly marked’ in children, scientists have warned. Pictured: Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine modelled an increased susceptibility among children to the new strain (VOC) compared to the original strain (Preexisting)
The highly infectious mutant strain of coronavirus found in Kent could be more likely to affect children, scientists have warned.
Modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the new virus strain is 56 per cent per cent more infectious.
Even if another national lockdown was implemented, it would be ‘unlikely’ to reduce the R to below one unless schools and universities were also closed, their study found.
But researchers do not believe the new strain is more deadly or causes any more severe disease in either adults or children.
Researchers said there is ‘some evidence that the increase may be particularly marked in children’.
‘I think the next few weeks going into January are going to be extremely difficult across the whole country,’ Sir Jeremy, director of the Wellcome Trust, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.
‘It is going be a trade-off between one or other. You cannot have everything. You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant.
‘I think there are some very, very tough choices. We are going to see these continued pressures at least over the next two or three months.’
Yesterday the Tory candidate for London mayor, Shaun Bailey, said the Government should delay pupils’ return for a fortnight to give a ‘fighting chance against the virus’.
Teaching unions have already called for a return to online lessons for at least two weeks and for teachers to be vaccinated before they go back to classrooms. All lessons were due to restart on January 4, but Education Secretary Gavin Williamson then announced plans for a staggered return for some secondary school pupils.
Under current plans, all primaries will return as normal on January 4, along with GCSE and A-level pupils and those on vocational courses.
Mr Williamson has warned allies he faces an ‘enormous battle’ to keep children attending secondary schools.
Downing Street officials and the Department for Education will hold talks today.
Senior education leaders fear pupils have already lost months of schooling and youngsters sitting exams this year risk being unfairly penalised.
But Mr Bailey, who has claimed he has Mr Johnson’s personal backing as the mayoral candidate, said schools were one of the main transmission points for the virus.
He added: ‘We must make the most of the Christmas break to defeat Covid-19 where we can.
‘I am proposing a two-week circuit-breaker for schools. During this time we can stop our children mixing and get our teachers tested.
‘This gives us a fighting chance against the virus without causing maximum disruption.’
Millions more Britons face being plunged into Tier 4 this week as the mutant Covid-19 strain continues to spread across the country
Tory MPs have told Boris Johnson that school closures risked ‘damaging the life chances of our next generation’
Just 388 people under 60 without health conditions have died of coronavirus in England’s hospitals
The figures show that 1,979 previously healthy people died in hospitals in England after testing positive for Covid-19 between April 2 and December 23. Just 338 of these people were aged 40 to 59, with another 44 aged between 20 and 39, and just six under the age of 19, according to the data
Just 388 people aged under 60 with no underlying health conditions have died of Covid-19 in England’s hospitals since the start of the pandemic, NHS data has showed.
The figures show that 1,979 previously healthy people died in hospitals in England after testing positive for Covid-19 between April 2 and December 23.
Just 338 of these people were aged 40 to 59, with another 44 aged between 20 and 39, and just six under the age of 19, according to the data.
Meanwhile 45,770 deaths were recorded among those with pre-existing conditions, of which 21 were aged under 20, 263 were between 20 and 39 and 2,926 were aged between 40 and 59.
Up to 11million lateral flow tests will be made available for schools and colleges from January 4, providing testing capacity for up to 5.5million.
The National Education Union called on the Government to go further, and said it wanted all children to be tested before they returned.
It said all lessons should take place online for two weeks while testing was set up and teachers had their vaccinations.
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said troops should be deployed to carry out tests and keep schools open. He said soldiers had successfully helped test hauliers queuing at Dover to clear the backlog of lorries waiting to cross the Channel.
A mass testing study in England’s schools revealed that one in every 79 people tested positive in November, without knowing they were infected.
The Office for National Statistics data showed 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff went in because they did not know they had the virus.
Infection rates were highest in secondary schools, and tests in the worst-affected areas of the country found around one in every 67 tested positive.
A Government spokesman said rapid testing would help keep secondary schools open, while reducing the risk of transmission in communities.
They said: ‘We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health. But as the Prime Minister has said, it is right we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.’
Doctors fear the NHS could be overwhelmed within days as hospital admissions surge due to the highly infectious Covid strain raging across the country.
The total number of patients in hospital with the virus is likely to exceed the peak from the first wave, with 21,286 coronavirus patients being treated on December 22 – the most recent day data is available for. In comparison, the figure on April 12 was 21,683.
The fears come as millions more Britons face being plunged into Tier Four this week, with the next tier review on December 30 amid rising infections and hospitalisations.
Doctors in London said their hospitals resembled a ‘war zone’, while Members of the Scottish Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties warned the mutant strain ‘could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed’, according to The Times.
Paramedics in the capital are receiving almost 8,000 call-outs daily, and Boxing Day was described as one of London Ambulance Service’s ‘busiest ever days’. The 7,918 calls received by London Ambulance Service (LAS) on December 26 was up more than 2,500 on the 5,217 received on the same day last year, and medics are receiving support from other ambulance services in the South.
One paramedic said that crews were waiting around six-hours on average to hand over patients, who were often being treated in ambulance bays because of a lack of available bed. He told the BBC: ‘It’s been a horrendous time. Ambulance staff are finding the whole situation very stressful.’ South Central Ambulance Service, which serves Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire, has also warned that it is ‘extremely busy’ and that 999 should only be dialled in a ‘life-threatening or serious emergency’.
Top medics today insisted the NHS will cope with the current spike in Covid cases but warned there would be ‘a cost’ to pay. Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told BBC Breakfast: ‘The cost is not doing what we had hoped, which is being able to keep non-Covid activities going.’