Students are being asked to undertake coronavirus tests upon their return from the half term break, as ministers consider whether to delay lifting restrictions amid rising cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who signalled he was in favour of vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds to prevent school outbreaks, told pupils returning to classrooms this week after the half-term break that the “most important thing” they could do was get tested to ensure they are not asymptomatically carrying the virus.
Sir David King, chair of the Independent Sage Group, has questioned whether the Government was pressing ahead with a “herd immunity policy” among teenagers, while encouraging the roll out the vaccination programme for over-12s to take place “quickly” and rethink the policy on masks
He told Sky News: “The Pfizer vaccine has already been given the green light in this country to over 12-year-olds. I think we should run that programme forward quickly.
“But we’re opening schools today and the Government has said 12 to 18-year-olds no longer need to wear face masks at school – I don’t think that was a wise thing to do and I do hope the Government will rethink this in the light of the current figures.”
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Sir David added: “Let me ask you, if I may, to ask the Government, are they actually believing in herd immunity amongst school children?
“Is that why they’re saying, ‘take masks off it’, so that the disease spreads rapidly and they all become immune by having had the disease?
“If that is a policy, shouldn’t we be honest with the public, and tell us that is the policy?
“I believe that herd immunity was the policy from the beginning back in February, March last year, so have we returned to that now with the high vaccination level?”
It comes as the UK Government faces a “difficult” choice this week on whether to relax all Covid measures on June 21 in England, with a decision due in the next seven days.
Mr Hancock said ministers are “absolutely open” to delaying unlocking if the Indian variant starts to fuel hospital admissions.
He also refused to rule-out social distancing and guidance on wearing face coverings staying in place beyond the target date.
The comments come as coronavirus cases have continued to increase in the UK amid reports the Prime Minister is considering pushing so-called freedom day back by at least two weeks in order to allow more people to be fully vaccinated against the Indian strain.
Pressed on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show whether June 21’s unlocking could be postponed, the Health Secretary said: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.”
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The Cabinet minister revealed that the Indian variant, which has become dominant in the UK, looks to be 40% more transmissible than the Kent strain.
Fears over new variants being imported into the country were behind the Government’s decision to switch holiday destination Portugal from the green list to the amber list suddenly last week, with Britons continuing to scramble for flights home before Tuesday’s 4am requirement to quarantine for 10 days comes into force.
The race to guard the population against the Indian mutation, which is also known as the Delta variant, will continue at pace this week with those aged under 30 to be invited to book their vaccine jabs.
Over the weekend, there were queues of young people at vaccination centres which have already opened their supply up to all people aged over 18.
Around 400 infections a day are among people who have had both vaccines, Sir David King said.
He told Sky News “we know that anyone vaccinated twice is relatively safe against the virus.
“But let’s not forget the one in 25 new cases are people who have been vaccinated twice – that means 400 new cases a day are people who had the vaccine twice.
“While there is an extensive amount of virus out there in the country, amongst our people, it is dangerous.”
He continued: “Dying isn’t the sole issue about that we’re trying to avoid here. The number of people who are suffering from long Covid in the country is enormous and this is not a simply a flu, once you’ve had the vaccine.”
Daily reported Covid-19 cases over the weekend remained above the 5,000 mark, with a further 5,341 lab-confirmed cases recorded on Sunday, while the Government said a further four people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of 9am that day.