Schools should reopen on country-wide basis, insists minster despite concerns over regional R rates

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Ray

The culture secretary has insisted there should be a "whole country" approach to the reopening of schools, despite disparity in regional infection rates.

Oliver Dowden, speaking at the daily coronavirus press conference, said the government's "clear intention is that we move as a whole country" on the reopening of schools.

The government hopes Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils can return to primary schools, as early as June 1, if evidence shows it's safe to do so.

Mr Dowden, responding to a question from ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston, said if a track and trace system identifies "very micro hotspots" of coronavirus infections, then lockdown measures might be imposed on schools at local levels.

The government wants schools to reopen, with measures in place, as early as June 1. Credit: PA

"It is best though…that we move as a whole nation and that would include the whole of England in doing so," he said.

The culture secretary also confirmed 35,704 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Tuesday.

He said that represents an increase of 363 from 35,341 the day before.

In the 24-hour period up to 9am on Wednesday, 177,216 tests were carried out or dispatched, Mr Dowden said.

His comment comes just hours after his Cabinet colleague Robert Buckland said there may not be a “uniform approach” in the reopening of schools.

Mr Dowden said "a lot of work has been done" to ensure schools can reopen safely.

He said ministers have considered infection mitigating strategies such as "staggering entry times", and "keeping children together in groups of 15".

"The reason for doing all of that, he said, "is because I think there’s very strong evidence, particularly for the most disadvantaged children in those early years, it’s not cost free for them not going to school".

Several councils across the country have voiced concerns over schools reopening in June.

On Tuesday, Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire advised its schools against wider reopening, following similar moves from Bury, Liverpool and Hartlepool.

Schools educating the children of key workers are already implementing infection mitigating measures. Credit: PA

A number of the 153 English local authorities have acknowledged safety concerns but have not urged all their schools to reject the proposed timeframe.

A slide shown at the government coronavirus briefing showed huge disparity in the number of people in hospital with coronavirus in different region of the UK.

And it has been reported the R number (rate of infection) in southern regions is around 0.5, while the number in some northern regions could be as high as 0.9.

a poll from teachers’ union NASUWT suggested that only 5% of teachers think it will be safe for more pupils to return to school next month.

General secretary Patrick Roach said the union remains “unconvinced” that wider reopening of schools from June 1 is “appropriate or practicable”.