Ministers are reportedly considering keeping schools closed in January amid fears the new mutant strain of Covid-19 is spreading faster among children.
Scientists advising the Government said the rate of the virus continued to increase in some areas during the second lockdown, when schools were open but more adults stayed at home.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag ) believe this could be because the new variant spreads far ‘more effectively’ in younger people than the original strain.
Teaching unions have written to Boris Johnson demanding that he delays the reopening of schools in January as the new variant surges across the country.
The National Education Union (NEU) has called for remote learning for the first two weeks of term to give schools time to establish accurate and effective mass testing systems.
Just last week the Government said that the reopening of secondary schools and colleges in England after Christmas will not be delayed but will be staggered.
But on Monday Boris Johnson hinted a major U-turn could be on the cards when he said the return of pupils to classrooms in the New Year would be kept under review.
Asked directly if schools would reopen on time, he said: ‘The most useful thing I can tell you at this stage is obviously we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January.’
He did not rule out keeping schools closed, saying ‘the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic’.
According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers are now mulling over plans to keep schools closed in all of January to bring the virus under control.
Concerns that the new variant spreads faster in children have also been raised by Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London epidemiologist who sits on Nervtag and was instrumental in pushing for the first lockdown in March.
He said data so far suggested that the new variant ‘has a higher propensity to infect children’ with ‘statistically significantly higher’ rates found among under-15s compared with those of the standard virus.
Fellow Nervtag member Prof Wendy Barclay said some of the changes seen in mutations had caused ‘alarm bells’ because they appear to make it easier for viruses to spread.
Latest figures for London – the epicentre of the new Covid strain– show cases are highest among secondary school pupils.
The data is particularly worrying because scientists had previously thought the virus spread less easily in school-age children.
On Sunday Health Secretary Matt Hancock also hinted at a change in direction.
Asked by BBC’s Andrew Marr whether he could guarantee that schools in tier four would not be closed, like they were across the country during the first lockdown, he said: ‘I’ve learned not to rule anything out in this pandemic’.
The Children’s Commissioner has warned that keeping schools closed for longer in January would be a ‘mistake’ and would mean sacrificing children’s learning and wellbeing in order to prioritise other sectors of society such as gyms and shops.
Hopes on schools being able to return are resting on a mass testing programme for pupils.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News that the Government would take ‘appropriate’ measures around schools but added: ‘I do want to emphasise the role that mass testing plays.’
The Government announced last week that access to rapid coronavirus tests will be rolled out to every secondary school and college in England from January.
But teachers condemned the plan, lamenting the ‘rushed and poorly thought-through’ timing of the announcement.
School leaders and headteachers were still waiting for more guidance on how it will work on Friday– despite many schools having broken up for Christmas.
The Department for Education has insisted the ‘huge expansion’ of rapid testing ‘will support secondary schools to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities’.
A spokesperson said: ‘As the Education Secretary has outlined, the path of the pandemic is changing and so we must act now. That is why our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.
‘The Chief Medical Officer has been consistently clear about the importance of children being in school for their mental health, wellbeing, and development. As such, it is important for all pupils to return to school full-time where possible.
‘Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked tremendously hard to put protective measures in place that are helping reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted and the Department will continue to support local authorities and schools to open and remain open next term.’
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