Boris Johnson 'would close shops and pubs' to reopen all schools in September

9 August 2020, 08:36

By Ewan Somerville

Boris Johnson has spoken of “a moral duty” to reopen all schools in September amid indications he would force pubs, restaurants and shops to close first should severe outbreaks occur.

The Prime Minister is understood to favour only closing schools as the “absolute last” resort after scientific advisers warned more restrictions may be needed to reopen classrooms in England next month.

Downing Street has reportedly drawn up a PR campaign to ensure schools reopen in September, after being presented with evidence that the “harm” to children is more persuasive to parents than fears of them falling behind academically.

Schools were shut in March, except to the children of key workers. They began a phased reopening to some in Reception, Year 1, Year 6, Year 10 and Year 12 in June and exams were axed.

But most pupils will have been out of the classroom for six months by September, when the PM has pledged all pupils will return.

READ MORE: Schools must stay open ahead of pubs and shops, Children's Commissioner says

The PM is understood to favour shutting shops and pubs to reopen schools
The PM is understood to favour shutting shops and pubs to reopen schools. Picture: PA

It comes as one of the largest studies globally on Covid-19 in schools, carried out by more than 100 UK institutions on 20,000 pupils, is set to conclude “there is very little evidence that the virus is transmitted in schools,” the Sunday Times reports.

Mr Johnson, writing in the Mail on Sunday, said it is the “national priority” to get all pupils back into classrooms in September after months without in-person education.

“This pandemic isn't over, and the last thing any of us can afford to do is become complacent,” he wrote.

“But now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so.”

He warned of the “spiralling economic costs” of parents and carers being unable to work, adding: “Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.”

Schools have been shut to most pupils since March
Schools have been shut to most pupils since March. Picture: PA

Children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield insisted schools must be first to reopen and last to close during any reintroduction of restrictions.

Ms Longfield told LBC that "everyone involved needs to be very can-do" about ensuring pupils return in the autumn and they are "definitely en-route to reopen," but warned contact-tracing and social distancing must be in place.

While acknowledging some schools may have to close in outbreak scenarios, she warned prolonged sweeping closures may mean pupils "might never come back, they might never see that school is something for them, and that's a concern".

Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents headteachers, said: “Boris Johnson’s article smacks of a Government realising far too late that education should have been their priority throughout and now, Corporal Jones-like, recognising that they are a step behind public opinion.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said this week that the Government cannot “decree” that classroom education would be prioritised, instead saying decisions would be made by local health chiefs.

However, a No 10 source said on Saturday that Mr Johnson's expectation is that schools would be the last sector to close, with firms being shut first in the event of severe local lockdowns.

“The PM has been clear that businesses including shops, pubs and restaurants should be forced to close first, with schools remaining open for as long as possible,” the source said.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has warned the nation has “probably reached near the limit or the limits” of what can be done to reopen society safely.

And Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the decision to impose the lockdown, suggested ministers would need to “row back on the relaxation of restrictions” to allow a full-time return to schools while keeping the virus under control.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green urged the Government to improve Test and Trace and help teachers make schools safe for a return in September.

Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Emergencies, wrote in The Observer: “As we head into autumn we will be forced to make tough choices in order to keep transmission down while restarting the economy, increasing employment and protecting public health.

“There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear: reopening schools must be the priority.”