Schools are safe and ready for next week’s planned mass return of children to the classroom, Gavin Williamson promised today as the Government stepped up its efforts to reassure parents nervous about an upsurge in coronavirus.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, the under-pressure Education Secretary vowed that the Government “will deliver” on its target of getting every child back into full-time lessons and called it a “moral imperative”. However, he declined to stake his Cabinet job on succeeding.
One government medical expert claimed children were more likely to die in a school-run car crash than from catching coronavirus at school.
“No environment is completely risk-free,” said Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, speaking on Sky News.
“Every time a parent sends their child off to school pre-Covid they may have been involved in a road traffic accident, there are all sorts of things. In fact that risk, or the risk from seasonal flu, we think is probably higher than the current risk of Covid.”
As the countdown began to the new school term starting on Tuesday next week:
- Boris Johnson returned to 10 Downing Street and posted a video online in which he called the risk to children “very, very, very small”. He appealed: “It’s absolutely vital that pupils get back into school in September.”
- Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Sage expert group, said there was more risk of transmission if parents go for a coffee or mingle after dropping their children at school.
- School standards minister Nick Gibb said fines for parents who refuse to send their children in will be used as a “last resort” in England. Councils can fine parents up to £120, with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay. “Fines for non-attendance have always been a last resort for headteachers and schools,” Mr Gibb said, advising nervous parents to talk to their head teacher.
- Donald Trump is reportedly considering emergency approval for a UK vaccine for Covid-19, to bring it out just before the US presidential election. The vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca is still being tested. Dr Harries said that everyone should have “fair and safe access” to cures.
Many pupils in England have not been to class since March, when schools were closed to all except vulnerable children and those of keyworkers.
Mr Williamson said feedback from schools — which have been given advice to install hand-gel stations, one-way systems and to separate entrances — showed “a real confidence” that the measures would work.
Asked if he would stake his job on it succeeding, Mr Williamson, who was criticised over the exams fiasco, replied: “Every part of me is committed to getting all children back into all our schools right across the country.”
The Cabinet minister said that, as a parent of two girls whose wife Joanne is a primary school teaching assistant, he was all too aware that home tuition cannot replace a great teacher and a playground full of schoolmates.
Teaching unions continued to call for a “Plan B” — an alternative for schools if coronavirus cases surge upwards. Mr Williamson said the answer was “local lockdowns” but with schools kept open in all but the most serious outbreaks.
Asked if that meant restaurants and pubs would shut first, he said classrooms were “very much the last thing that we would like to see closed down”.
Mr Williamson, whose brother is a secondary school teacher, added: “They talk with passion about getting classes back to normal as much as possible.”
In his message, the Prime Minister said he understood some parents were worried but the risk that children would suffer badly from Covid “are very, very, very, very small indeed.”
A Public Health England analysis found 67 single confirmed Covid-19 cases in schools in June. It said most cases linked to outbreaks were in staff and that they need to be “more vigilant”.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Government advice needs to cover the possible self-isolation of bubbles and, in extremis, moving to rotas or to more limited opening. It needs to cover advice to heads about the protections needed for staff in high-risk categories if infection rates rise.”
Leaked Cabinet Office papers reveal the Government is contingency planning for the risk of a second wave of coronavirus coming at the same time as a severe winter flu season, floods, and shortages of food and medicine caused by the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of December.