The Government cannot “decree” that keeping schools open must be prioritised over pubs during local lockdowns to combat spikes in coronavirus cases, the schools minister has said.
Nick Gibb insisted on Wednesday that all children will return to school in England in September but said the decisions to enforce closures to prevent new outbreaks will be made locally.
Experts have made it increasingly clear that some restrictions will need to return in order to fulfil the Government’s commitment on schools while preventing the rapid spread of Covid-19 from resuming.
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has said the reopening of schools “should be prioritised”, insisting they must be first to reopen and last to close during any local lockdowns.
Asked about her comments, Mr Gibb told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s a more nuanced response. It does have to depend on the facts of the case and that’s why the local director of public health will be responsible for the response to that spike.”
Pressed on whether schools should be the last to close, he said: “What I’m saying is that all children will be returning to school in September, including in those areas that are currently subject to a local lockdown – Manchester, Greater Manchester, Leicester and so on – because it is important children are back in school.
“But you can’t decree this for every single case and it will depend on the circumstances of a local increase in the infection rate, and that is why it is being led by the director of public health in localities. But we want all children back in school.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the decision to impose the lockdown, suggested ministers would need to “row back on the relaxation of restrictions”, such as in social and leisure venues and with increased working from home, to allow a full-time return to schools.
He told Today: “I mean that really is a policy decision, but I’m just saying, in my view, it is likely that some form of those measures will be necessary to maintain control of transmission.”
Prof Ferguson, whose advice continues to inform the Government’s response despite his resignation from the Sage advisory group, said there is some evidence that older teenagers transmit the virus just as effectively as adults.
“The risk then is that big schools, comprehensives, universities, FE (further education) colleges, link lots of households together, reconnect the social network which social distancing measures have deliberately disconnected. And that poses a real risk of amplification of transmission, of case numbers going up quite sharply,” he said.
Ms Longfield had earlier accused the Government of treating children “as an afterthought” during the Covid-19 crisis.
In a briefing paper, she said keeping schools open should be the “absolute priority”, adding: “Education should be prioritised over other sectors: first to open, last to close.
“When only a limited amount of social interaction is feasible, the amount accounted for by education must be protected – at the expense of other sectors/activities.”
Labour was unequivocal in backing Ms Longfield’s demand, with leader Sir Keir Starmer warning Mr Johnson he has only a month to fix the test and trace programme to prevent a resurgence in outbreaks.
“We were promised a world-beating system, we haven’t got it. So we’re saying to the Government very clearly today, time is running out,” Sir Keir said during a visit to Stoke.
“Schools must be the priority and we certainly support the call that schools should be the last to close.”
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared to take action to prioritise schools when she ordered bars, cafes and restaurants to close in Aberdeen as an outbreak of 54 new cases prompted a return to lockdown restrictions.
“Acting now, we judge, gives us the time and the space to protect the ability of our young people to return to education,” she said.
Meanwhile, an influential cross-party committee of MPs blamed the Government’s earlier failure to quarantine travellers arriving in the UK for having “accelerated” the spread of Covid-19.
The report by the Commons Home Affairs Committee was scathing of the “inexplicable” decision to lift all border restrictions in March, which they say led to “many more people contracting Covid-19”.
Figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have now been 56,600 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.