Covid: Reveal school return plan now, Williamson told

Labour demands answers on when schools will return and what scientific evidence education secretary has on Covid spread
23rd December 2020, 11:17am
John Roberts


Covid: Reveal school return plan now, Williamson told
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Labour has called for answers from Gavin Williamson over when students will return to schools and colleges in the new year amid rising uncertainty about Covid-19.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green and shadow schools minister Wes Streeting have written to the education secretary with questions about the return of students and calling for evidence about the spread of the virus among young people.

The two Labour MPs said these questions must be answered now, "not a matter of hours or days" before students are due to return to class.

The move came after Boris Johnson said he wanted schools to reopen as planned at the start of January, but he said measures were "under constant review".

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Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children and there are mounting concerns about the reliability of lateral flow tests, which are due to be rolled out in secondary schools.

Coronavirus: Fears over the reliability of school Covid tests

The prime minister has said that the government wants secondary school students to return to lessons in a staggered way in the new year if they "possibly can".

He said the "commonsensical thing to do" was to follow the path of the epidemic.

Labour's letter to the education secretary calls on the government to publish scientific evidence on the spread of the virus in schools and colleges - and the risk this poses to students, staff and the community.

It demands that the government puts in place plans to safeguard vulnerable children in the event that schools and colleges have to close.

And it asks when schools staff will be vaccinated. 

Last week, the government announced that most secondary school and college students' return to class in England would be staggered in the first week of January to help roll-out the mass testing of students.

But when asked whether he could guarantee that schools would be back on the planned start dates, Mr Johnson said: "The most useful thing I can tell you at this stage is obviously we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January in the way that we have set out."

This message was echoed by housing minister Robert Jenrick, who appeared on Good Morning Britain today.

He said: "We do want to get all schools back in January, the exact dates are subject to review because we have said that we are going to do a staggered start to give schools the testing procedures you have just referred to."

Ms Green said: "Gavin Williamson's late announcement on testing has created huge stress and confusion, and now the prime minister has said these plans published just five days ago may not happen.

Today's headlines raise serious questions for @GavinWilliamson.

What does the science tell us about infections in schools?

What's the plan for January?

Are students equipped for home learning?

Where's the plan for mass testing?

When will staff get a vaccine?

Our letter:

- Wes Streeting MP (@wesstreeting) December 22, 2020

"The government must provide pupils, parents and schools with clear information about what will happen in January and what support they will receive."

There is also mounting concern that the lateral flow tests the government plans to use in schools are not reliable.

Professor Jon Deeks, of the Institute of Applied Health Research at the University of Birmingham, told Tes that the tests are thought to have only picked up 3 per cent of positive cases among students.

The Department for Education plans to give any Covid contacts in secondary schools these tests for seven days rather than requiring them to self-isolate.

Prof Deeks warned that this could result in "outbreaks" in schools if students are kept in class rather than being told to self-isolate because an asymptomatic test says they are negative.

On Monday, Tes revealed that the NEU teaching union was calling on the government to allow schools to move classes online for most students for a fortnight at the start of January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.

It has also called on the government to begin vaccinating teachers and schools staff from the start of term.

A government spokesman said: "We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health, but as the prime minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.

"Our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools and colleges to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities."


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