Boris Johnson is under growing pressure from Tory MPs to reopen schools in England amid warnings that children have become the “forgotten victims” of the coronavirus pandemic. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is widely expected to confirm this week that there will be no return to the classroom after the February half-term break as ministers had hoped.
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.
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 he had written to Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle asking him to summon a minister to Parliament on Monday for an urgent question.
“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.”
Former cabinet minister Esther McVey said the Government should take into account the damage the prolonged closures were doing to the future prospects of a generation of children.
“We genuinely seem to have forgotten about the children,” she told The Daily Telegraph.
“Millions of them are missing out on an education, not developing socially with their friends and aren’t allowed to enrich their lives by playing sports and music any more.
“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.
The row comes as a further 32 vaccination centres are opening across England as the rollout programme continues to ramp up.
The latest Government figures showed more than 6.3 million people across the UK have received their first dose of the vaccine – with a record-breaking 491,970 being injected in a single day over the weekend.
They suggest the programme is on course to meet Mr Johnson’s target of getting the jab to 15 million of the Government’s top priority groups – including all over-70s – by mid-February, provided supplies of the vaccine can be maintained.
Based on the latest figures, an average of 393,031 first doses of vaccine would be needed each day in order to meet it.
Meanwhile, senior ministers are due to meet on Tuesday to discuss a proposal to require travellers arriving in the UK to pay to quarantine at a designated hotel to ensure they are following the rules on self-isolating.
The proposal is said to have the backing of key ministers including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove as well as Mr Hancock.
It was prompted by the emergence of new variants of the virus in Brazil and South Africa which scientists fear may be less susceptible to the vaccines that have been developed.
Mr Hancock said there were 77 known cases of the South African variant in the UK and nine of the Brazilian. He said that all the cases of the South African variant were linked to travel.
He said the new variants had been identified because both Brazil and South Africa had “decent-sized” genomic sequencing programmes but that other countries were less well covered.
“The new variant I really worry about is the one that is out there that hasn’t been spotted,” he said.
The Health Secretary’s fears appear to be shared by US President Joe Biden, who is set to reinstate virus travel restrictions on non-US travellers from the UK, Ireland, Brazil and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders.