Boris Johnson insists schools are safe despite reopening delay

27 January 2021, 17:58 | Updated: 28 January 2021, 05:52

By Megan White

Boris Johnson has insisted schools are safe and "Covid-secure" but said they increase the spread of coronavirus within the community as reopening was delayed until at least March 8.

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference that the new reopening date was the "earliest" date that was "sensible" and safe for children to go back.

He said that "the problem is not that schools are unsafe - teachers and headteachers have worked heroically to make sure they are safe, they are Covid-secure."

Read more: 'We tried everything we could,' Jenrick tells LBC after UK passes 100,000 Covid deaths

Mr Johnson announced on Wednesday that classrooms would not reopen after the February half term.

It is currently unclear whether all students will return from the 8 March, or whether it will be phased in by region and age group.

Mr Johnson told the press briefing: "The problem is that by definition schools bring many households together and that contributes to the spread of the virus within the community and drives up the R."

He also said: "I'm hopeful, but that's the earliest that we can do it and it depends on lots of things going right.

"It also depends on us all now continuing, above all, to work together to drive down the incidents of the disease."

The PM said the toll of the pandemic must also be measured in the "real risk of damage to the prospects of our young" people.

He said: "When we look at the toll of this pandemic it must be measured not only in the tragic loss of life that we've endured, with over 100,000 deaths.

"But I'm afraid we must also remember not just the damage to the economy but the lost weeks and month of education and the real risk of damage to the prospects of our young people.

"So I share very much the frustration of pupils and teachers today who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom."

A "gradual and phased approach" to lifting lockdown measures will be outlined by the government in the week of the 22 February, with parents and teachers given at least two weeks notice ahead of the return to classrooms.

Jonathan Van-Tam said there is not a "markedly increased rate of infection or mortality" from Covid-19 among teachers.

The deputy chief medical officer for England said that children "very rarely" got ill with Covid-19 and it is "predominantly" older teenagers who transmit the virus.

"Do teachers get Covid-19? Yes.

"Is it clear that teachers get Covid-19 from children or from each other? No, it is not clear. They could also pick it up in their own lives outside of school," he said.

"Is there a clear signal in the data of a markedly increased rate of infection or mortality in teachers? No. But could infected children introduce the infection back in their own households and therefore contribute to R, absolutely yes."

It is expected that other Covid restrictions will not be relaxed until well after the 8th March, as the Prime Minister told the House of Commons earlier that "reopening schools must be our national priority".

Acknowledging that many are looking for a road-map out of the lockdown, he added: "We will not persist for a day longer than is necessary, but nor can we relax too soon.

"If we do we run the risk of our NHS coming under still greater pressure, compelling us to reimpose every restriction and sustain those restrictions for longer."

Just a day after the UK surpassed a death toll of 100,000 people from Covid-19, he emphasised: "We remain in a perilous situation, with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with Covid, almost double the peak of the first wave."

The government has made yet another U-turn on free school meals, after previously suggesting that they would not continue the programme over the half-term break.

Boris Johnson said children eligible for food parcels or vouchers will receive these until they return to school and a "programme of catch-up" would be put in place for pupils as well as summer schools.

However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the PM for challenging him to declare that schools are safe when they are not able to open until March.

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. 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.

"But of course we welcome any steps in reopening schools and we're going to look at the detail of how the Education Secretary plans to deliver this and the plans to deliver online learning."