Primary schools in England’s worst-hit coronavirus hotspots will remain shut at the start of term on January 4 as ministers desperately try to slow the spread of the disease.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced this afternoon that primary schools in dozens of areas across London, Essex, Kent and beyond will not be allowed to reopen as planned.
Vulnerable children and the children of key workers will be the only pupils allowed to attend the schools in person, with all of their classmates being forced to switch to online learning.
Mr Williamson also announced the planned staggered return of secondary schools and colleges is being pushed back by a week to provide more time to roll-out mass Covid-19 testing for pupils and staff.
Students in years 11 and 13 who are facing exams will physically return on January 11 – a date which had originally been earmarked for the return of all secondary and college pupils in England.
Students in the other year groups will now have to wait an extra week until January 18 to return.
However, Boris Johnson suggested this evening that even that return date could be changed for some schools as he said the Government’s approach will be shaped by infection rates.
The Government’s original plan was for the majority of secondary school and college pupils to start the term online from January 4 before resuming face-to-face lessons from January 11.
Which primary schools will be staying shut on January 4?
The Government has published a list of areas where primary schools will be shut to all pupils apart from vulnerable children and children of key workers from January 4.
The areas are:
Barking and Dagenham
Hammersmith and Fulham
Kensington and Chelsea
Southend on Sea
Tonbridge and Malling
Mr Williamson has faced massive pressure in recent weeks over the proposed staggered restart of secondary schools and colleges in the New Year as teachers, unions and scientists all called for a delay.
However, the decision to keep primary schools in hotspot areas closed went further than many people were expecting.
The Education Secretary told MPs: ‘We will be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday January 4.
‘We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development.
‘In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest we will implement our existing contingency framework such as only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face-to-face.
‘We will publish this list of areas today on the gov.uk website.’
The full list of the areas subject to primary school closures from January 4 was later published by the Department for Education.
It includes 22 London boroughs, 11 boroughs in Essex and nine in Kent.
Mr Williamson stressed the restrictions on primary schools are only being applied to the worst-hit infection hotspots and that the ‘overwhelming majority’ in England will open as planned.
He also said areas which are subject to the restrictions on face-to-face primary teaching will be regularly reviewed in the hope that schools can reopen as soon as possible.
On the issue of secondary schools and colleges, the Education Secretary said the coronavirus infection rate is ‘particularly high among this age group’ and as a result ‘we are going to allow more time so that every school and college is able to fully roll-out testing for all of its pupils and staff’.
He said: ‘All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning January 11, with all secondary school and college students returning full time on January 18.
‘During the first week of term on or after January 4, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible and will only be open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.’
Mr Williamson said he expected the ‘full return of all pupils in all year groups’ on January 18.
However, speaking at a Downing Street press conference this evening, Mr Johnson suggested that date could be changed for some schools depending on infection rates.
He said: ‘I want to stress that depending on the spread of the disease it may be necessary to take further action in their cases as well in the worst affected areas.’
The timing of the announcement of the schools rethink sparked a furious reaction from union leaders.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said: ‘This is another last-minute mess which could so easily have been avoided if the Government had listened to school leaders before the holidays.
‘Instead, back then, schools which wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action. Now we have a situation where the Government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.
‘If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.’
Jon Richards, head of education at the union Unison, said: ‘Everyone agrees it’s important for schools and colleges to open but it can’t be at any expense when infections are rising.
‘This delay for secondary schools is a sensible decision, giving more time to organise mass testing effectively to limit the spread. Primary and early years reopening should also be delayed because social distancing isn’t really possible.
‘Ministers should also ensure any moves to extend the vaccine priority list must cover all school staff and not just teachers.’
The Government’s initial plan was for exam year pupils to physically return to secondary schools and colleges from January 4 while the other students took part in online learning before then going back on January 11.
Mr Williamson’s announcement comes after a number of senior scientists called for schools to remain completely shut in January, arguing that such drastic action is the only way to bring infection rates down.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there had been a ‘balancing act’ since lockdown was initially eased between keeping control of the virus and maintaining ‘some semblance of normal society’.
But he said the planned reopening of schools from next week may have to be postponed.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme yesterday: ‘Clearly nobody wants to keep schools shut. But if that’s the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations, that may be required at least for a period.
‘There are no easy solutions here. My real concern is that even if universities, schools, do have staggered returns or even stay closed, how easy it would be to maintain control of the virus is unclear now, given how much more transmissible this variant is.’
Earlier, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Mike Tildesley had signalled the possibility of a ‘slight delay’ to having pupils back in the classroom.
Figures published yesterday by NHS England showed a further 365 people who tested positive for Covid-19 had died, taking the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 49,225.
Downing Street said yesterday that it was ‘still planning for a staggered opening of schools’ after Christmas but insisted the plans were being kept under constant review.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: ‘We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place.
‘As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.’