All schools in England to close as new national lockdown announced

4 January 2021, 20:03 | Updated: 4 January 2021, 23:40

Primary schools in London had already been ordered to stay closed at the start of the new term
Primary schools in London had already been ordered to stay closed at the start of the new term. Picture: Getty

By Patrick Grafton-Green

All schools in England will close as part of a new national lockdown, Boris Johnson has said.

The Prime Minister made the announcement in an address to the nation on Monday evening amid concerns the NHS risks being overwhelmed.

He said all primary schools, secondaries and colleges would move to online learning from Tuesday for all except vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

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This will remain the case until at least February half term.

Mr Johnson added that GCSEs and A-level exams would be cancelled this year.

University students will not be allowed to return to their institutions, but nurseries and early years settings will remain open.

The Prime Minister said: "Because we now have to do everything we possibly can to stop the spread of the disease, primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England must move to remote provision from tomorrow."

He said since "it's not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer", Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will work with regulator Ofqual to put in place "alternative arrangements".

Mr Johnson added: "We will provide extra support to ensure that pupils entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them while schools are closed, and we will distribute more devices to support remote education."

He said parents "may reasonably ask why" decisions on schools were not taken "sooner".

"The answer is simply that we've been doing everything in our power to keep schools open because we know how important each day in education is to children's life chances," he said.

"And I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children. Children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of Covid.

"The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households."

The restrictions are unlikely to be eased until around 13 million people aged over 70 or classed as clinically extremely vulnerable have received the vaccine and been given enough time to be protected - a period of about two to three weeks after getting the jab.

Mr Johnson said: "If the rollout of the vaccine programme continues to be successful, if deaths start to fall as the vaccine takes effect and - critically - if everyone plays their part by following the rules, then I hope we can steadily move out of lockdown, reopening schools after the February half-term and starting cautiously to move regions down the tiers."

The announcement followed earlier decisions made by Scotland, where schools will close until at least the end of January, and Wales, where they are shut until January 18.

The Prime Minister said the new variant, which is up to 70 per cent more transmissible, was spreading in a "frustrating and alarming" manner, and warned the number of Covid patients in English hospitals is 40 per cent higher than the first peak.

"As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic," he said.

He added: "The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we're entering the last phase of the struggle because with every jab that goes into our arms we're tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people."

The lockdown will be brought into law as soon as possible, but Mr Johnson urged the public to follow the rules straight away.

Sir Keir Starmer earlier said the Prime Minister must order schools in England to close as part of the new lockdown.

The Labour leader said pupils would have to learn from home in order to regain control over coronavirus, protect the struggling health service and create the breathing space to deploy millions of vaccines.

He added that delaying the closure of schools could mean pupils remained out of the classroom for longer.

"The longer we delay, the longer we are going to be in restrictions, the longer we will have to endure things like school closures," Sir Keir said.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt also called for immediate action to close schools on Monday.