Coronavirus: Schools will shut for everyone except children of 'key workers'

18 March 2020, 17:19

Boris Johnson has announced all schools will be closing
Boris Johnson has announced all schools will be closing. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

Schools in the UK will be closed as the country deals with the unprecedented task of stemming the spread of coronavirus.

Earlier in the afternoon, the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales announced their schools would be closing due to coronavirus.

Sources from Stormont then revealed that schools would be closed in Northern Ireland to pupils immediately, and to the teachers by Friday.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that all schools will be closed from Friday in a statement in the Commons.

Children of "key workers" and the most vulnerable will be allowed to attend those schools.

Prime Minister Mr Johnson also confirmed schools would be closing, and said nurseries and creches will be expected to do the same.

However, he urged parents not to leave children in the care of grandparents or older relatives who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus.

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also confirmed the measures
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also confirmed the measures. Picture: PA

Mr Johnson also confirmed that the government has the power to enforce all schools, including private ones, to close.

He added the government would provide meals and vouches for children who were in need of them.

Exams will also not be taking place as planned in May and June.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said they may even be unable to open again before the summer holidays.

Mr Johnson has been facing calls to close education centres for a number of days, but the Prime Minister has been reluctant to, saying the decision was "under review".

On Monday, he urged people to avoid mass gatherings or social situations, but said that "on balance" it was better to keep them open.

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People are increasingly staying inside to stop the spread of infection
People are increasingly staying inside to stop the spread of infection. Picture: PA

He said: “There is an argument about school closures. We think at the moment on balance it’s much better if we can keep schools open, for all sorts of reasons.

"But I appreciate again that this is something we need to keep under review.”

The news comes as 104 people across the UK have died from the virus.

In addition, 676 more people in the UK tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 2,626.

Mr Johnson said measures taken so far were helping to slow the spread of the disease, but there may be a need for stronger action further down the line.

He said schools had been under "constant review" but now was the time to apply "further downward pressure" on the upward curve of the virus by closing schools.

The objective is to slow down the spread of Covid-19, but there is still a need for NHS workers to continue to go to work, as well as police officers, supermarket delivery drivers and social care workers looking after the elderly, he said.

More details will be released soon, but these are the groups whose children will still be able to go to school, alongside vulnerable children.

Meanwhile, in the Commons, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that assessments and examinations such as GCSEs and A-levels will not take place in the current academic year.

He said: "I can confirm that we will not go ahead with assessments or exams and that we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year.

"We will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need."

Mr Williamson told MPs: "The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated and it is crucial that we continue to consider the right measures to arrest this increase and to relieve the pressure on the health system.

"The public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal are shifting.

"It is also clear that schools are increasingly finding it more difficult to continue as normal, as illness and self-isolation impacts on staffing levels and pupil attendance."

Mr Williamson said the scientific advice showed schools and nurseries were safe for a small number of children to continue attending.

He said vulnerable children included those who have a social worker and those with educational health and care plans.

Mr Johnson said he realised that closing schools would be "frustrating" for many parents and it will "make it harder for them to go out to work".

He said further measures were being worked on to support individuals and their families to help keep the economy going.

He said testing for Covid-19 was being "massively" scaled up to hit 25,000 tests a day, and a "huge public information campaign" was being launched.

Retired health professionals were also being asked to return to help the NHS with this "unprecedented challenge", Mr Johnson said.

A "game-changer" test to determine whether an individual has developed antibodies to tackle the coronavirus is "coming down the track", he added.

"The great thing about having a test to see whether you've had it enough, is suddenly a green light goes on above your head and you can go back to work in the safe and confident in the knowledge that you are most unlikely to get it again.

"So from an economic point of view, from a social point of view, it really could be a game-changer."

Mr Johnson said the Government would try to keep the duration of school closures to an "absolute minimum" and intended to "get things going again as fast as we can".

The Government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said closing schools would help reduce transmission, but stressed that children are not getting the serious form of the illness.

He urged people to continue with social distancing and staying at home if they have symptoms or a household member does, adding: "When we don't adhere to this we are actually putting lots of people at risk."

He said people should view the Government's latest guidelines as "a really clear instruction" - not merely advice.

Mr Johnson said it was "strong advice" - but added: "We do not rule out taking further and faster measures in due course."