Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener
Children have been "forgotten" by the government in its quest to lift lockdown, the children's commissioner for England has said, as she called for them to be prioritised in future plans.
Anne Longfield told ITV News she's been "really concerned" at "various points" that "children were being forgotten in the relaxation of lockdown".
She added how she was "really disappointed" when schools had not reopened fully in June, but "pubs, non-essential shops and indeed theme parks were open".
"Most children will be out of school for six months by September, that means six months they're never going to make up in education," she said.
She said children were too often “an afterthought” during the first lockdown as she published a paper setting out the key actions needed to ensure that youngsters are “at the heart” of future plans.
She argued that if any local or national lockdown takes place, schools should be the last places to be locked down, after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma insisted "all pupils" will be back in school after the summer holidays, but said the government will react to local spikes with local lockdowns.
His comments appeared to suggest that schools are facing the prospect of being shutdown again after children return in September, if there are significant local outbreaks.
Mr Sharma said the government "approach has been very much looking at local situations, and you've seen a number of areas where we've had to make local lockdowns, and that will be the process going forward."
Pressed if that means some schools could close, the business secretary said "clearly we'll have to look at this on a case by case basis".
It comes after a new modelling study implied that reopening schools in September must be combined with a high-coverage test-trace-isolate strategy to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 later this year.
Ms Longfield’s briefing paper says 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.”
The Children’s Commissioner believes reducing Covid-19 transmission in the community is very important “but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort”.
With rapid testing of pupils and teachers, any confirmed Covid-19 cases and their close contacts can be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home, the briefing paper says.
Ms Longfield said that if schools do have to close, they must remain open for children of key workers and vulnerable children.
She said this latter group should be renamed “priority children” and a concerted effort must be made to work with these families to increase the child’s attendance.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer agreed that schools "need to be the priority" but said the government is "running out of time" to get ready for September.
"The government's got basically the month of August to get a grip on this and to get things in place.
"Track, trace and isolate is critical, but it's still not working properly, we were promised a world beating system, we haven't got it," he said.
Schools minister Nick Gibb suggested the government was prepared to close schools in response to coronavirus outbreaks and said the Test and Trace system would help.
He told ITV News the NHS's "very comprehensive" track and trace system "will identify any spikes in the virus around the country, and when we do identify spikes, as we did in Leicester and Manchester, we take swift action locally to introduce lockdowns".
He said "any child with a symptom of coronavirus in schools will of course be asked to go home, they'll be tested and if they're positive, we'll then introduce other restrictions and the children that child is in contact with will go into self-isolation as well."
He said the local director of public health will then introduce their own further measures "to deal with and tackle that outbreak".
"We want all children to return to school in September," he said, "it's good for their long term education, it's important for their mental wellbeing".
He insisted all children would be going back to school in September, "including children in Manchester and Leicester".
The briefing says Government should consult on the type of children covered by the priority list and allow more flexibility for teachers to identify youngsters as a priority where they have concerns.
The paper argues that where other children need to work online, the Department for Education must expand its laptop programme so that pupils in all year groups who need them can receive devices and 4G Wi-Fi routers quickly.
Ms Longfield said consideration should be given to the impact on children expected to take exams next summer so that they are not disadvantaged, especially in the case of extended local lockdowns.
There is a risk that some children will struggle to transition back to school after a period away, the paper says, adding that schools should make pastoral care a clear priority and identify reasons for non-attendance or challenging behaviour and what support youngsters need.
With evidence of a rise in mental health issues among certain children because of the lockdown, Ms Longfield called for local NHS mental health teams to work with schools to provide advice and support to prevent problems.
The briefing also suggests the Government hold a press conference aimed at children, and says youngsters should be allowed to participate and encouraged to submit questions.
Ms Longfield said: “Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought. Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended.
“Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half-full. That must change in September.
“The Government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.
“That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils, to reassure parents.
“If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”