Boris Johnson discusses the ‘roadmap’ for reopening of schools
The prime minister has told MPs he wants to start reopening schools from March 8 – but Scotland’s youngest pupils are due to return from February 22. Three to seven year-olds are also expected back in school in Wales on the same date. Former health minister Steve Brine is among 18 Conservative MPs who have backed a campaign organised by UsforThem, a volunteer organisation which pushes for the needs of children to be prioritised.
He said: “We can’t have schools opening in Scotland and Wales on [February 22] with no explanation for why English pupils are stuck at home.
“It’s great news that the Government has done such a brilliant job in vaccinating the top four at risk groups against Covid. Now we need to ensure that that success translates into a safe return to normality, starting of course with schools.”
Former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey added her support, warning of the “huge amount of harm we’re causing to children by not giving them an education”.
She said: “[I] really hope that we can open school gates, classrooms and playgrounds on February 22. It’s simply not right to keep children locked up like this, especially once we’ve vaccinated the top four at risk groups.”
Other supporters include Tim Loughton, a former minister for children and families, and Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the powerful 1922 group of backbench Tory MPs.
The PM has told MPs he wants to start reopening schools from March 8
Further pressure to get pupils back in schools has come with children’s commissioner Anne Longfield saying they should return at the “first opportunity possible”
She told the BBC: “What we all realise now is the impact on children of not being in school, both educationally and in terms of their wellbeing is absolutely immense, and one that we hadn’t really anticipated in the first instance but now a year on is very clear to see.”
Warning of the impact on children who were already struggling with their studies, she said: “At the heart of all this is that children are getting very different experiences and in every likelihood, those children who started behind and most disadvantaged have fallen further behind, we know that now.”
A senior Government source said: ‘We will proceed cautiously and carefully to open up based on the best available scientific evidence and data and to avoid a resurgence in the virus. The Prime Minister has been clear that our first step must be to reopen schools.”
A key factor in the UK Government’s thinking is that Covid-19 rates in Scotland have been much lower than those of England. The March 8 date for England was picked because it is three weeks after the point when it expects to have vaccinated the most vulnerable citizens and it gives time for them to build up protection.
Concern about the impact of the pandemic on the country’s poorest families has also been heightened by a major report from the highly respected Resolution Foundation.
It found that families that have recently started claiming the universal credit (UC) benefit have taken a major hit to their incomes. Almost half (45 percent) said their income had fallen by at least a quarter, while around one-in-three (34 percent) reported a drop of at least 40 percent.
More than three in 10 families (31 percent) of the families have either acquired new debts or seen existing ones grow, while around one in five (21 percent) has fallen behind on paying essential bills.
There are fears hardship will intensify if the ending of a weekly £20 boost to UC goes ahead as planned on April 5.
Boris Johnson is facing strident calls to reopen as much of the economy as soon as possible
Karl Handscomb, a senior economist at the foundation, said: “Cutting the incomes of six million families in just two months’ time, when public health restrictions are still likely to be widespread, makes no sense politically, economically, or in terms of raising people’s living standards.
The prime minister is facing strident calls from his own backbenchers to reopen as much of the economy as soon as possible.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said it would be “almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place at all” by the time the nine most vulnerable groups had been inoculated.
Mr Johnson has pledged to set out a “road map” on February 22 for how the lockdown will be eased in England.
It is reported ministers are preparing to allow pubs to serve takeaway pints in April before fully reopening in May, with restrictions such as the 10pm curfew scrapped to ease confusion.
Demands for an early return to schools are likely to intensify
Hopes are also rising that falling Covid-19 case numbers mean outdoor gatherings and team and individual sports could also restart within weeks of schools returning in March
The PM has said that instead of returning to a tiered system of different restrictions across England there may be a “national approach” to moving out of lockdown.
Concern about the long-term impact of the lockdown on children means that demands for an early return to schools are likely to intensify.
Lincoln Conservative MP Karl McCartney said: “day Express has done great work in highlighting the damage done to children and teenagers with its Generation Lockdown campaign. But we are not going to start helping our children recover from the year of restrictions until we accept they should be back in school very, very soon.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Schools remain open to vulnerable children and children of critical workers, and the protective measures that schools have been following throughout the autumn term continue to be in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community.
“We know these restrictions have had a huge impact on many children. That’s why we are focusing our catch-up efforts and remote education support on those who need it most, including 1.3million laptops and tablets and a further £300million to early years, schools and colleges for tutoring, building on the existing £1billion Covid Catch Up Fund.”