Covid: Boris Johnson refuses to put timetable on reopening of schools amid pressure from Tory MPs

It is not clear whether schools will reopen after the February half-term holidays, as had been hoped. Credit: PA

Boris Johnson has refused to put a timetable on when schools might reopen, suggesting they could remain closed past the February half-term holidays.

Asked if he could give a firm date for schools reopening, the prime minister said: "Daily we're looking at the data and trying to work out when we're going to be able to lift restrictions.

"Schools obviously will be a priority but I don't think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infection."

He's under growing pressure from his own MPs to reopen schools in England, amid warnings children have become the “forgotten victims” of the Covid pandemic.

The plan had been to reopen schools after the February half-term, when it is hoped everyone in the top four groups most vulnerable groups will have been vaccinated for coronavirus, but Mr Johnson suggested reopening them too soon could see a resurgence of Covid-19.

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston predicted that most schools in England will remain closed till mid-April, but some might open in March.

Political Editor Robert Peston predicts most schools to remain closed till mid-April:

He said: "We've now got the R down below 1 across the whole of the country, that's a great achievement, we don't want to see a huge surge of infection just when we've got the vaccination programme going so well and people working so hard.

"I understand why people want to get a timetable from me today, what I can tell you is we'll tell you, tell parents, tell teachers as much as we can as soon as we can."

He confirmed the UK is "on target" to reach aim of vaccinating the most vulnerable to coronavirus by February 15, and ministers will consider before that date whether schools should reopen shortly afterwards.

"We're looking at the data as it comes in, we're looking at the rates of infection, as you know the JCVI groups 1 to 4 are going to be vaccinated by February 15, but before then we'll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures.

"But don't forget this country has made huge progress in reducing infection, I don't think people want to see another big surge in infection."

It comes as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is widely expected to confirm that there will be no return to the classroom after the February half-term break - as ministers had hoped.

Mr Williamson, who has faced repeated calls for his resignation throughout the coronavirus pandemic, told reporters on Monday morning that the government wants "to see all children back into school at the earliest moment".

The PM added the government will be "looking at the potential of relaxing some measures" before mid-February.

But he could not give a guarantee schools would be back before Easter.

"Believe me there's nothing I want to do more than reopen schools, I've fought to keep schools open for as long as I possibly could," he said.

"We want to see schools back as fast as possible, we want to do that in a way that is consistent with fighting the epidemic and keeping the infection rate down."

Over the weekend, Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to guarantee that they would be back before Easter, saying that infection rates would need to come down further.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

While the vaccine rollout was making “brilliant progress”, he said the NHS remained under intense pressure and that any general easing of lockdown restrictions in England was a “long, long, long way” off.

His comments were met with frustration among Tory MPs who had hoped that the vaccination programme would enable the controls to be eased from early March, by which time the most vulnerable groups should have received the jab.

Rob Halfon, the chairman of the Commons Education Committee, said: “The whole engine of the state must do everything possible to get our schools open after half-term as was originally proposed,” he told the Guardian.

“If it means priority vaccinations for teachers and support staff then it is worth it because despite the efforts of individual teachers and support staff who are doing their best we are facing an epidemic of mental health problems and educational poverty.”

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Mr Halfon told Times Radio: “I think that everything the Government is doing is directed towards the economy and health which is perhaps understandable, but I think education is perhaps the most important thing we can do as a society because it is about our coming generation.

“I want the engine of Government to be directed towards opening our schools again.

“For the Government to place as much importance on schools and colleges as they do on the economy and the National Health Service.”

“They are the pandemic’s forgotten victims and we’ve got to start thinking about their prospects and futures as well.”

The Prime Minister has always said that his first priority would be to fully reopen schools – which are currently only taking vulnerable children and the children of key workers – once the disease was brought under control.

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