But the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – led by Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – told the Prime Minister a stricter lockdown was needed, a source said. They argued the November lockdown, when schools stayed open, failed to keep the infection R rate below 1.
Sage now wants all schools, especially secondaries, shut for a month, along with pubs and non-essential shops, to combat the rapidly spreading new virus variant.
Downing Street and the Department for Education discussed the issue yesterday and a spokesman said: “We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health.
“But as the Prime Minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.
“Our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools and colleges to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.”
Mr Gove said that the plan to reopen primary schools next week was going ahead, along with the return of years 11 and 13. Other secondary pupils will go back the following week.
Mr Gove said: “We do keep things under review. And we’ll be talking to head teachers and teachers in the next 24 and 48 hours, just to make sure that our plans, which of course are accompanied by community testing, are right and robust.”
He also said yesterday: “It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible…But we all know that there are trade-offs.”
He added: “As a country we have decided, and I think this is the right thing to do, that we prioritise children returning to school. But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.
“We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”
Scientists have suggested the Covid variant may infect children more easily and teaching union NASWUT is demanding further action on school safety. General secretary Dr Patrick Roach has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson asking for schools in the highest tier areas to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed vulnerable or those who are the children of key workers.
The union is also urging the Government to publish new safety guidance in the light of the virus variant, introduce mandatory face coverings in schools and give staff priority to receive vaccinations.
There is no suggestion the Covid mutation poses more of a threat to children’s health but scientists are investigating whether it spreads more easily in youngsters.
Preliminary research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested that schools and universities might need to close on top of existing Tier 4 restrictions to bring the variant under control.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green accused the Government of not acting quickly enough and not having a clear strategy.
She said: “Parents will be extremely concerned that all they’re getting is rumour and innuendo. Teachers and school staff will need to know what is expected of them.”
Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar warned that the country had “very, very tough choices” over schools and said there would be “continued pressures” from the spread of the virus for at least the next two or three months.