Schools in England will not reopen until March 8 at the earliest, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said, confirming that the nationwide lockdown will continue for at least another five weeks.
Wednesday’s news came as the UK recorded another 1,725 coronavirus-related deaths. The government also announced that 7.1m people have received their first vaccination, half way to the government’s mid-February target of 14m.
Mr Johnson said that while he recognised how “frustrating” the closure of schools had been for teachers, students and parents, it was not possible to reopen schools immediately after the February half-term as planned.
The prime minister will draw up plans next month on how the country will ease its lockdown restrictions and reopen the economy, with schools considered the “absolute top priority”, according to government officials.
Mr Johnson told MPs he would set out the results of the work in the week starting February 22, when the House of Commons returns from its half-term recess, with the publication of a road map for exiting lockdown.
Schools reopening would be the “national priority” and the “first sign of normality returning” to England, the prime minister said. Mr Johnson intends for the current set of restrictions to represent the last lockdown in the pandemic.
He said the government hoped to set out the results of the review and outline a “gradual and phased approach towards easing restrictions in a sustainable way”. But the prime minister warned that the timetable for reopening was “adjustable”.
Robert Jenrick, housing secretary, earlier said England would return to a tiered system of restrictions dictated by local conditions, as the lockdown was eased. But government insiders cautioned they may differ from the regional restrictions that were in place before the latest lockdown.
Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that “perpetual lockdown is not the answer” and he would set out a strategy “in much more detail in the next few weeks”. Conservative MPs have been clamouring for such a plan.
The road map is likely to state that the government will only ease restrictions if the promising start to the UK’s vaccination programme continues, no new coronavirus variants are discovered, and deaths and infections continue to fall.
However, the prime minister said that if the government was successful in vaccinating those in the top four priority groups by March 8, the most vulnerable within society should have acquired immunity, allowing the government to begin the safe reopening of schools.
He told MPs that the government would provide additional resources to help students catch up for lost learning opportunities.
“We recognise that these extensive school closures have had a huge impact on children’s learning which will take more than a year to make up — so we will work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure that people have the chance to make up their learning,” Mr Johnson said.
The prime minister said the government would “prolong arrangements” for free school meals over the half-term holiday.
Keir Starmer, Labour leader, called on Mr Johnson to use the February half-term break to vaccinate teachers and other support staff, but the prime minister claimed that such a strategy would deprive more vulnerable groups of a jab.
Mr Johnson insisted that schools were “safe” but added: “The problem is they bring communities together. Huge numbers of kids are a considerable vector for transmission.”
Steve Chalke, the head of Oasis Academies, said the question of when schools would reopen was a “matter for the scientists” but said the government needed to urgently work with the sector to develop a workable plan. Teachers were “standing ready”, he said. “We’re all hopeful. There is no one in the country that doesn’t want to get schools open as soon as possible,” he said. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the government needed to “straighten out” confusion over rapid testing for schools, review safety measures and set out a timetable for vaccination. “Everybody agrees that getting all children back into class is vital as soon as possible, but this clearly cannot be rushed,” he said.