Boris Johnson announces school reopening delayed to March 8

27 January 2021, 13:42 | Updated: 27 January 2021, 18:21

By Joe Cook

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that the reopening of schools will not be possible until at least 8 March, dashing hopes that students would return to classrooms immediately after the February half term.

Announcing the new plans in a statement to the House of Commons, the PM said he hoped a phased return of students could begin from the second week of March, if coronavirus infections have come down enough.

This date is contingent on pressure on the NHS falling and meeting the target of vaccinating the most vulnerable groups by 15 February, with immunity then taking around three weeks to build in these individuals.

"It will not be possible to reopen schools immediately after the half term. I know how frustrating that will be to students and teachers who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom," Mr Johnson said.

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.

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.

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It is expected that other Covid restrictions will not be relaxed until well after the 8th March, as the Prime Minister reiterated 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."

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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.

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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."

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However, the PM retorted that "schools are safe", but added: "The problem is that they bring communities together, obviously, and large numbers of kids are a considerable vector of transmission. It's not that there's any particular extra risk to those involved in education."

Boris Johnson is expected to hold a press conference from Downing Street at 5pm this afternoon, where members of the media are expected to ask questions about the delay to students returning to classrooms.