Health secretary Matt Hancock today said that schools are safe for teachers – putting him in direct opposition to teaching unions, which say school staff are at "serious risk" from pupils’ return.
Mr Hancock was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when he said there was no evidence of a higher rate of coronavirus infection among teachers than any other profession.
However, as many primary schools begin the spring term this morning, teaching unions have called for on-site openings to be paused, saying the high rate of infection could fuel the pandemic.
Boris Johnson: 'Schools are safe'
Mr Hancock was asked on Radio 4: “When the government says schools are safe – safe for who? Safe for the pupils?”
He replied “Yes."
He was then asked if schools were “safe for the teachers who confront the pupils”, to which he replied “Yes”.
Coronavirus and schools: Teachers 'not at higher risk'
Mr Hancock said: “I don’t think teachers confront pupils – they teach pupils and look after them. But on the substance of the question, it is clear that children are very, very unlikely to get this disease and that is true as far as we can see with the new variant as well as the old.
"As far as teachers are concerned, I know that they have done a remarkable job keeping education open as much as possible and there is no evidence that there is a higher rate of infection amongst teachers as amongst any other profession. The challenge is that when schools are open the disease spreads more easily but closing them is an absolute last resort because of all the other negative impacts of that decision.”
Mr Hancock told Times Radio that people understood the government changing its position on whether schools should remain open or not.
He said: “One of the big challenges in the middle of a pandemic is that the data changes, and therefore the public health advice rightly changes, and we have to change our position.
“One of the interesting things, as health secretary, I’ve noticed over the last year is that people get that, right?
“People get that the virus moves – we’ve seen this new variant making things much, much harder because it spreads so much easier and then we have to update our position based on updated public health advice.
“On schools, our approach is we should follow that public health advice.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.