Phased return to Welsh primary schools from 22 February if Covid rates continue falling

The First Minister has said that Wales' youngest primary school pupils could return to the classroom from 22 February. Credit: PA Images

Wales will hope to "take advantage" of its lower rate of coronavirus transmissions to get pupils back into schools ahead of other UK nations, First Minister Mark Drakeford has said.

The Welsh Labour leader said a phased return to the classroom, starting with primary school children, could begin "straight after half-term" if Covid cases continue to fall.Wales went into a tight lockdown after a surge in coronavirus cases just before Christmas.

But the Welsh Government said rates of the virus across the country have fallen below 200 cases per 100,000 people for the first time since early November.

Mark Drakeford is set to announce further details on the school return in a press conference on Friday afternoon. Credit: Welsh Government

Boris Johnson has announced a delay to the reopening of schools in England until at least 8 March.

The prime minister had planned to reopen schools after the February half term, but high infection rates and uncertainty over the vaccine's ability to prevent the spread of the coronavirus mean the date has been pushed back.

It comes as Mr Drakeford confirmed restrictions in Wales will remain in force for a further three weeks - but rules around exercising with people from other households will be relaxed.

From tomorrow, people in Wales will now be allowed to exercise with one other person from one other household - provided they live locally.

On getting pupils back to school, the First Minister told a press conference in Cardiff, "But he said he will look to reopen schools in February, with the youngest pupils being prioritised if case numbers continue to fall.

Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Government's press briefing: "Getting young people back into school and college for face-to-face learning is our priority.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the headroom to do this yet. As soon as we do, we want schools and colleges to begin to re-open.

"If infections continue to fall, we want children to be able to return to school after half-term from February 22, starting with the youngest children in our primary schools."

Kirsty Williams said reopening schools is the Welsh Government's ''top priority'' Credit: PA

Education Minister Kirsty Williams said, ''While we're trying to provide clarity to parents, learners and teachers, we must all remember that this depends on the virus transmission rates continuing to fall and all of us doing our bit to keep Wales safe.''

Mr Drakeford added that the Welsh Government is working with local education authorities, teaching unions and the Children's Commissioner to return young people to face-to-face learning "as soon as it is safe to do so".

"Provided the next three weeks see further falls, we think we can do that straight after half-term. That's what we'll be working on together," Mr Drakeford added.

Teaching union NAHT has criticised the decision.

Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, said: “It has been a challenge for families to juggle employment and home-learning, and school leaders want to see nothing more than pupils back in class as soon as it is safe to do so.

“But it is clear that there are still too many unknowns, such as the effectiveness of the vaccine and the pace at which infections are falling, to put the 22 February date firmly in the diary yet."

Credit: PA

The First Minister's announcement came as there were a further 546 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 190,940.

Public Health Wales reported another 29 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 4,695.

Public Health Wales figures show that 362,253 people have received their first dose of the vaccine.

Among the top priority groups, 66.9% of over-80s have received their first vaccine.

That figure is higher for care home residents, with 73.1% having now been vaccinated.

The findings suggest that it is the time between doses and not the dosing level which has a great impact on the efficacy of the vaccine. Credit: PA Images

Public Health Wales said that, despite being "increasingly confident" case numbers were heading in the right direction, the NHS remained under immense pressure.

Dr Eleri Davies said: "We are increasingly confident in the data which is showing a consistent downward trend in the numbers of positive cases in Wales.

"However, the number of cases is still extremely high, and this is placing extreme pressure on our NHS Wales hospitals."