Twice-weekly Covid testing of pupils will allow them to go back to school safely in two weeks, the prime minister said today.
“All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be, and that’s why I’ve always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen,” Boris Johnson told MPs.
“And based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that, two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice-weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils.”
It was revealed last night that the prime minister would tell MPs that all pupils in all years could go back to the classroom from March 8.
Back-to-school: PM to say all can return from 8 March
But unions had joined forces on Friday to warn that a “full return of all pupils on Monday 8 March” would be “reckless”.
And today, headteachers warned again that it could be “counterproductive”.
Geoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: “We share the government’s aim of returning all children to school as soon as possible but we are concerned that its decision to press ahead with a full return on 8 March may prove counterproductive and lead to more disruption.
“It is very difficult to understand why the approach in England is so different from the decisions taken in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland for a more cautious, phased approach to full school reopening, particularly as the Covid infection rate is actually higher in England than in Scotland and Wales.”
The “big bang” approach to school openings has proved controversial because of fears from teachers’ leaders that it “could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown”.
There have also been concerns from some school leaders that conducting Covid testing on pupils will not be feasible without a phased return.
ASCL warned this afternoon that plans to test all secondary pupils for Covid in the first week back to school would not “stack up”, even if “staggered” reopenings were allowed.
The prime minister has so far stressed the need to relax restrictions in a “cautious” manner, saying that the government would make decisions based on the latest data at every step.
He is expected to host a Downing Street press conference at 7pm tonight, alongside key advisers.
The leader of the opposition has also declared his support for a full return to school in two weeks, but cautioned that things will need to move forward “carefully”.
Speaking to Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Sir Keir Starmer said that he was worried about the impact the lockdown and school closures were having on children and that he “ideally” wanted all schools back to being open more widely on 8 March, despite calls from education unions for a phased return.