Schools in England 'may reopen region by region' when lockdown eased

19 January 2021, 17:11

Posters informing on social distancing and face coverings outside Beatrix Potter Primary School in Wandsworth
Posters informing on social distancing and face coverings outside Beatrix Potter Primary School in Wandsworth. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Schools may reopen region by region when lockdown restrictions are eased in England, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries has suggested.

Dr Harries said it is "likely that we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions" when questioned by the Commons' Education Select Committee.

She said it is "highly likely" that when the national lockdown is lifted there will not be "consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country".

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"Therefore, as we had prior to the national lockdown, it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application," she added.

But she told MPs schools were a top priority and the balance of education and wellbeing was "right at the forefront" of consideration.

Pupils in schools and colleges - except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils - have been told to learn remotely until mid-February amid the lockdown.

However the latest figures show more than one in five primary school pupils in England were taught on-site last week.

Overall, 14 per cent of state school pupils were in class on January 13, which is higher than when schools were partially closed between March and May last year.

Figures from the Department for Education show 21 per cent of primary school pupils were on-site, while five per cent of secondary school students were in class.

On-site attendance during the first lockdown was approximately four per cent in primary schools and one per cent in secondary schools, according to the Government's analysis.

When asked whether schools will reopen after half-term, Dr Harries said: "It is a Department for Education policy date, but it seems a perfectly reasonable assumption in the sense of if you're looking at the epidemiology you're watching a wave of virus come across the country.

"We can see it's hopefully starting to level off now in the original areas where the new variant rose and we have a national lockdown and we can start to see that those numbers are starting to be contained.

"So you can get a sense of the timeframe in which those waves might come down and we could potentially open schools.

"What I can't guarantee - that is, in this interval between now and February - (is) that there wouldn't be another variant, or we may find some other epidemiological change.

"So I think these are very sensible time estimates but they need to be understood as not fixed dates and that would apply to anything in any department in relation to the pandemic."

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told MPs that children have experienced "considerable mental health harms" during the pandemic.

"The most important thing we can do for our children and young people's mental health is to get schools open again and get face-to-face learning and peer interaction happening," Prof Viner said.

Downing Street said Boris Johnson wanted schools to open "as soon as possible".

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Johnson has previously stated "the priority is to get schools open as soon as possible, but whether that is after the half-term break depends on a number of things", including progress in the vaccination programme and the possibility of a new coronavirus variant emerging which resists the jab.

Asked whether regional disparities in vaccination rates could slow the reopening of schools in some areas, the spokesman said: "We will continue to look at the latest scientific evidence and data."

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