Boris Johnson has been warned by a group of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs that he must have a “very good reason” for keeping English schools closed for longer than those in Scotland.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, reiterated his call for the government to ease lockdown restrictions from 8 March, once vaccines for the most vulnerable have taken effect.
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Following a study from the University of Oxford showing that its vaccine cuts transmission, he said the government has “got to start addressing its mind to the harms caused by the measures we’re putting in place to control Covid, as well as to the harms caused by Covid itself”.
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Mr Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean, said in a statement: “Covid is a deadly disease. However, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense damage to people’s health and livelihoods, and we need to lift them as soon as it is safe to do so.
“The prime minister said last week that reopening schools was a ‘national priority’. Now that Scotland has indicated that schools are likely to return from 22 February, there needs to be a very good reason for keeping English schools shut for so much longer.
“Once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated by 15 February, and protected by 8 March, the government must start easing the restrictions. We’ve got to demonstrate to the public how the good news about the vaccination rollout translates into a return to normal life.
“The top four at-risk groups account for about 88 per cent of deaths and about 55 per cent of hospitalisations from Covid, and in early January the health secretary said to MPs that he would be watching hospitalisation and death rates ‘like a hawk’.
“This is the test for lifting restrictions and I agree with the health secretary when he said these restrictions must not be kept in place ‘a moment longer than they are necessary’.”
Schools in Scotland will return on a phased basis from 22 February subject to final confirmation in two weeks’ time, first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson has faced sustained pressure from many of his backbenchers to loosen lockdown restrictions in England as soon as possible, but has instead suggested that he will take a cautious approach.
The government will later this month publish its plan for easing England’s restrictions, with 8 March earmarked for the first relaxation, with the wider reopening of schools.