BORIS Johnson has warned the return of millions of children to schools across England today will push up the Covid infection rate – but insisted his roadmap out of lockdown is still on track.
Speaking at a Downing St press conference the PM said the first day back has been a success and reassured parents classrooms are safe, but acknowledged cases will inevitably rise.
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Boris Johnson said it has been an ’emotional day’ for parents and pupilsCredit: PA:Press Association
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny HarriesCredit: Reuters
He said: “This has been a big day and an emotional day for millions of families up and down the country as children see and play with their friends at school for the first time in months.
“Although I know some will have been anxious, as pupils always are on the first day of term, I also know the overwhelming feeling is one of relief.
“We all know the education of our children is so important that the greater risk now is keeping them out of school for a day longer.”
The PM thanked parents for home schooling and said the Government would “build on your efforts so from now on our schoolchildren not only catch up on lost learning, but take the biggest possible step forwards with a concerted national programme for educational recovery”.
He said the national effort keeping kids at home had helped Britain get Covid under control, but cautioned reopening schools “will of course have an impact on the spread of the virus”.
The PM warned: “We do accept of course there will be a risk of increased transmission, that’s inevitable.
“If you open up schools to millions of kids across the country that’s going to happen, but we think we can do it now the way we are because we have the proportion of the population vaccinated.
“And with the number of patients being admitted to hospital with Covid each day still eight times higher than the lows of last summer it’s more vital than ever to follow the rules.”
It came as…
The PM insisted scientists will monitor the impact of the schools reopening ahead of deciding on the next steps in unlocking the country.
But he was upbeat that it won’t push his roadmap off course.
He said: “We will continue on this roadmap. At all times, as we decide on the next steps forward and when we take them, we will be driven by the data.
“There is a big budget of risk involved in opening schools today in the way that we are. That’s just inevitable.
“We think it’s manageable, we think it’s right, we think we’re prudent to be doing what we are.
“The biggest risk is not opening schools now but we’ll continue to take a cautious and prudent approach.”
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries warned the case rate is “still quite high” and is at the same level as the end of last September.
She said: “This is the level at which a new wave could easily take off again from and we need to persist with all of those actions.”
The number of Coronavirus cases is plunging across the countryCredit: COBR
More than a third of adults have now been vaccinatedCredit: COBR
The jabs programme is starting to take effect with deaths fallingCredit: COBR
It came after the PM insisted the country was “ready” for the return of schools because cases, hospitalisations, and deaths have all plunged in recent weeks.
Boris said the tide has turned so much against the virus that now “the risk is actually in not going back to school given all the suffering, all the loss of learning we have seen”.
And he insisted that he’s “very hopeful” things will go “according to plan” with a mass testing blitz and extra safety measures in place.
Today’s return of schools marks the first step in the PM’s plan to get the country fully out of lockdown on June 21.
As part of phase one rules around meeting another household have been loosened to allow people to leave home to meet one other person outdoors for a coffee or picnic.
And visits to care homes are also resuming today under strictly controlled conditions.
Boris said although it is “only a small relaxation of the rules”, the changes will bring “joy and relief” to families after months of “tough restrictions”.
Pupils up and down the country headed back to lessons for the first time since December, with a huge mass testing operation under way and extra Covid precautions in place.
Secondary school pupils are being asked to take three tests at school over the next two weeks, and after that will be provided with two tests a week to carry out at home.
They will also be strongly encouraged to wear masks in the classroom until at least the Easter holidays.
Primary school kids won’t have to don face coverings, but extra guidance has been introduced saying visitors and staff should use them in areas where social distancing between adults isn’t possible such as corridors.
Millions of children have returned to school across England todayCredit: PA:Press Association
The PM will reassure parents that classrooms are safe to return toCredit: Mercury Press
Children’s minister Vicky Ford said she expects most students to voluntarily use masks but insisted they shouldn’t be forced to.
She said: “It’s a hugely exciting day and a huge relief to so many children, families, schools, staff all across the country.
“There will be some who will be nervous about going back, but we’ve put in these extra measures so we can make sure we keep Covid out of the classroom.
“That is a whole extra layer of keeping Covid out of the classroom, but we need to also set this aside against a very different backdrop to in January.
“We’ve had the fantastic vaccination programme. That does give us that extra level of protection against the virus as we bring children back into school.”
Asked what teachers can do if students refuse to wear a mask, Ms Ford stressed ministers haven’t made them mandatory.
She said: “Nobody should be denied an education because they don’t wear a mask but we do really strongly recommend it.
“There will be some students who will be exempt from wearing masks and we haven’t made it mandatory though we’re strongly encouraging it.
“The vast majority of teenagers want to do everything they can to protect themselves from the virus, to protect their friends, their family, staff, and they understand the masks.”
Ms Ford also insisted schools won’t be closed again even if the R-rate does rise, saying that was the recommendation of scientists now that more than a third of adults have been vaccinated.
And she didn’t rule out the possibility that children could get the jab in the future, saying Government scientists “will be looking at plans for the future’ once all over-18s are jabbed.
Secondary pupils are being asked to wear masks in the classroomCredit: PA:Press Association
There is a mass testing blitz under way at schoolsCredit: PA:Press Association
The children’s minister said pupils who test positive will have to go home and stay out of school for 10 days, and it will be up to teachers to keep tabs on their close contacts and tell them to self-isolate too.
Students will be using rapid tests called lateral flow tests, which turn around a result in just half hour but are less accurate. Roughly one in every thousand returns a false positive.
Those who return a positive result after administering the test themselves at home will be asked to take a follow-up PCR swab, which is much more accurate.
If that comes back negative they will be allowed to end their self-isolation early and return to school.
The PM’s spokesman said the aim would be to get PCR tests out “as quickly as possible” after the positive lateral flow test.
He explained that follow-up PCR tests are not needed after school tests because they are done “under supervision in a controlled environment”.
Dr Harries warned the start of the mass testing programme may result in a short period “when a larger number of pupils come out” of school.
But she said that should only last for a week or two before calming down.
Union chiefs have warned secondary schools could be forced to close again if not enough children abide by the recommendation to wear masks.
And a leading children’s doctor warned schools can only open safely if everything else “stays locked down” for at least three weeks.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said reopening schools will likely add around 0.2 to the R number.
He said: “It’s very plausible, in fact I think very likely, that we will keep the R below one with schools open with these mitigations in place.
“And I think the key thing is that children themselves, and parents, don’t think ‘the schools are open, we can relax, we can mix outside of school’ – in a sense, come out of lockdown around the school opening.
“The modelling – and I think the Government has been clear on this – is about we can reopen schools safely if everything else stays locked down over the next three weeks.”
Not all secondary pupils are going back today, as some schools are staggering the return to help with the implementation of mass testing.
A top scientist also moved this morning to reassure parents that schools are “absolutely” safe for children to return to.
Professor Calum Semple, who sits on the Government’s Sage advisory group, said pupils are at lower risk of catching the virus.
He acknowledged it was “inevitable that we will see a rise in cases” as a result of adults mixing because “schools are a place of work”.
And he said advice for teachers “is going to be wearing face masks, being really careful in the common room – their colleagues are more of a risk to them than the children.”
Prof Semple said: “It’s going to be difficult and it is going to mean some social distancing and face mask-wearing, good ventilation until really late summer when we’ve got the vast majority people vaccinated.”