Tory MPs demand ‘clarity’ on school reopenings

Studying from home

Gareth Fuller

Tory MPs are asking the government to set out a “routemap” for the reopening of schools in England, amid growing concerns about the impact of closures on children’s education.

The chairman of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, has asked for a plan to be laid out in the Commons.

The government has said it is “too soon” to say when schools will reopen to all pupils.

But it is expected that it will not be until after the February half-term.

Mr Halfon, Conservative MP for Working Hard for Harlow, tweeted that he had asked for an urgent question on the matter on Monday.

If granted, an education minister will need to respond to his queries.

Schools in England have been closed to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers since the national lockdown began on 5 January.

Pupils have been told they will be learning at home until at least half-term in mid-February.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said schools would be given two weeks’ notice before reopening – which he would “certainly hope” would happen before Easter.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock echoed his comments in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, saying: “I hope that schools go back after Easter, of course I do.”

However, he added that while the vaccine rollout was “going fast… we’ve got to make sure that we get the cases down and we’ve got to protect the country from new variants coming in from abroad”.

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Analysis box by Chris Mason, political correspondent

Ministers are desperate to avoid easing restrictions, only to have to re-impose them – and are managing expectations around the timescale of loosening the lockdown.

The chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, told me: “Obviously schools should be back. If necessary offer all teachers the vaccine. Certainly once the most vulnerable are vaccinated, there has to be a roadmap and school children should be first.”

But one senior figure having regular conversations with the Department for Education told me there was an “unwritten acknowledgement” that schools returning fully after the February half-term had been “written off”.

Discussions continue about prioritising some year groups returning once this is deemed safe, but even that feels some way off.

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Wales’ first minister said on Friday that the “wholesale” return of pupils to school after February half-term was “unlikely”.

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock said the UK has identified 77 cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa – all linked to travellers arriving in the UK, rather than community transmission.

Ministers will meet later to consider imposing tougher restrictions on people arriving from abroad, including the possibility of hotel quarantines for travellers.

Chart showing UK coronavirus data

Mr Hancock said “three quarters of all the 80-year-olds in the country and a similar number of care homes” have received their first doses of the vaccine.

In Scotland, a plan to deliver vaccination appointments to people aged 70-79 in blue envelopes – so that they stand out in the post – has been delayed.

In total, 6,353,321 people in the UK have had an initial injection, according to the government’s coronavirus dashboard.

A further 610 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported in the UK on Sunday – down from 671 deaths last Sunday.

The number of new positive cases fell for the fourth day in a row to 30,004 – the lowest figure since before Christmas.

The death figures tend to be lower on a Sunday and Monday because of weekend lags in reporting of the data.

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