Covid: Tougher measures for new school term as schools advised to merge classes if staff off sick

Back to school means a return to extra Covid rules, ITV News' Helen Keenan reports

School classes could be merged if the number of staff off sick climbed too high, the Education Secretary has said.

Nadhim Zahawi has outlined a battery of measures to ensure schools stay open, as Covid cases continue to rise, including the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for students in year 7 and above and on-site tests for secondary school students ahead of their return to the classroom.

The Education Secretary said "the priority is to keep schools open", and keep children in school in the classroom as much as possible, due to the mental health impacts.

He told ITV News: "The best place to be for students is in the classroom with their teachers. If you have large scale absenteeism, and we got to 8% at the end of last year, it will probably go a bit higher than that, because of the reopening of schools, but then you can merge classes.

"It's much better for students to be in class, in school, than to be out of school, that is absolutely clear, and is really well evidenced, which is why I am determined, as is the prime minister, to protect education and to make education our real priority, as we transition this virus from a pandemic to an endemic."

Nadhim Zahawi: 'Education is our priority'

In an open letter posted to Twitter on Sunday, he urged education leaders “to do everything in your power to protect face-to-face learning”, using all of their available teaching and non-teaching staff to cater for students on site.

But he indicated that some remote learning may need to take place.

An additional 7,000 air cleaning units will be provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces.

And 12 to 15-year-olds are being encouraged to get fully vaccinated with two jabs and 16 and 17-year-olds are now eligible for a booster dose.

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Mr Zahawi said he hoped guidance that secondary school children should wear masks in the classroom again would not be in place “for a day longer than we need it”.

He said: “What we’re saying is...with Omicron, because it’s so infectious, we want to make sure that we give you as many tools to be able to make sure that education is open.”

But he admitted it was “more challenging, of course, to deliver education with masks on in the classroom”.

Mr Zahawi added: “This is an aerosol-transmitted virus and if you’re wearing a mask, if you’re asymptomatic, then you’re less likely to infect other people.”

While the PM said that even though he did not like the idea of face masks in the classroom, there was scientific evidence they could cut transmission rates.

Boris Johnson said on a visit to a vaccination centre in Buckinghamshire: “We don’t want to keep them. I don’t like the idea of having face masks in (the) classroom any more than anybody else does, but we won’t keep them on a day more than is necessary.”

'Any material between your mouth and nose and the virus does help.'

Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor and clinical virologist in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester stressed face coverings "do work very well".

He told ITV News: "Any material between your mouth and nose and the virus does help. Anything from reducing the virus exposure to half, if you're wearing a cloth mask, if somebody else is wearing a cloth mask you reduce it to even a quarter..

Dr Tang added: "Children will adapt to this and some of them feel safer when they wear a mask. There's a lot of publicity about people not being happy about mask wearing, thinking it doesn't work or that it's disruptive, but not so much about those people who actually feel more comfortable wearing a mask and feel more secure wearing a mask in the class."

With data still trickling in from the festive period, the extent to which the highly-transmissible Omicron variant will pile pressure on the NHS in the coming weeks is not yet clear.

A further 137,583 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in England and Wales as of 9am on Sunday, the government said.

This was down on the 162,572 cases recorded in England alone on Saturday.

Concerns have been mounting over the impact of Omicron on the country’s workforce, as Boris Johnson tasked ministers with developing “robust contingency plans” for staff absences.

Health minister Ed Argar said the government was “doing the responsible and sensible thing” by asking the public sector to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of staff off work.

It was reported on Sunday that United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust had declared a “critical incident” linked to “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages.

And in Wales, Swansea’s Morriston Hospital said it could provide only a “limited service” in its emergency department over the Bank Holiday weekend owing to staffing pressures “worsened by Covid”.

Meanwhile in Yorkshire, the region’s ambulance service said that “the added challenge of Covid-19-related absence amongst staff… is having a significant impact on our frontline operations”.

But Mr Zahawi said the NHS was “very good at being able to move staff around”.

The Education Secretary said the NHS was used to dealing with staff being off over the winter and during “big flu viruses”.

Secondary school students will be tested before they return to the classroom. Credit: PA

Mr Zahawi said “there’s nothing in the data” to suggest further coronavirus measures will be needed later this week.

He told ITV News: "London is the epicentre of Omicron, we are seeing some positive signs from London where it looks like the infection rates are plateauing, if not yet coming down. The concern is that there is leakage into the over-50s, but 90% of the over-50s have been boosted and we know that boosters work really well.

MPs are due to return to the Commons on Wednesday following the Christmas recess. The government is set to review its Plan B measures on the same date.

The regulations are not due to expire until January 26, but Downing Street said at the point they were announced in December that a review would take place three weeks after implementation.

Asked whether he could rule out announcements on wider restrictions on people in England in the coming week, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay told Sky News: “We don’t think the data supports that at this stage. Of course, we keep the data under review, but we’ve seen significant behaviour change as a result of Plan B.”