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Andy Burnham Rejects Suggestion Government Could Decide Which Regions Can Re-Open Schools First

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said school re-opening should be decided locally not nationally (PA)

4 min read

The mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has called on government to publish a date for when all schools can start to re-open rather than deciding on a regional basis.

It comes after the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries suggested classrooms in London and the South East may re-open ahead of the rest of England as they dealt with the mutant variant of Covid-19 first.

She told the Commons education select committee: "It's likely that we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions” after the current lockdown ends. 

But Mr Burnham believes it must be decided at a local level by headteachers and Directors of Public Health. “I would say create a date by which schools can open, trust people at local level then to make the right judgement about when it's safe in that particular community, support people with testing and vaccinations to enhance confidence around school reopening,” he said.

“And then ask Ofqual to make the necessary changes to the to the assessment of young people so that there is no detriment at all to to young people who live in areas where school opening has been has been delayed.”

Burnham also reiterated calls for teachers to be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations. “I think the whole idea of reopening schools would be strengthened if we can resolve the issue around vaccination for teachers and school support staff," he told PoliticsHome.

“I think that is an issue that's being looked at by the JCVI at the moment, but I think the case is clear to prioritise teachers and school support staff.”

Burnham also said a regional approach to opening schools would have implications for end of year assessments. “Some young people stand to be seriously disadvantaged by that if they have to spend more time out of the classroom,” he said. 

“I just think on all of these issues we seem to be living hand to mouth and I think we need to, rather than suggestions of a regional opening and all the implications and kind of confusion that potentially causes, I think we need that clear plan laid out for how all of this is going to be managed," he continued. 

Yesterday Dr Harries explained to the education select committee that there were "some glimmers of hope" about current infection rates in London, which was one of the first areas to be affected by the more transmissible Covid variant.

"I think on the broad epidemiology it is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country", England’s deputy chief medical officer added.

"And therefore, as we had prior to the national lockdown, it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application."

But Downing Street rejected the idea of a postcode lottery for pupils, saying "the priority is to get schools open as soon as possible”.

Asked whether regional disparities in vaccination rates could slow the reopening of schools in some areas, the Prime Minister's official spokesperson said: "We will continue to look at the latest scientific evidence and data."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Given the variation in Covid infection levels nationally it would not surprise us if the government decides that different parts of the country should emerge from lockdown at different times. 

“If that is the government’s plan, however, then we would urge them to provide clarity sooner rather than later on the local conditions that will need to be met in order to relax lockdown measures. 

“This will give vital time to prepare and enable a smoother reopening of schools and businesses.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “Clearly this should be informed by the science and regionally phased reopening may well be necessary if that is what the science suggests.  

“Given previous experience a very cautionary approach will need to be adopted.”

A department for education spokesperson said: “We continue to keep plans for the return to school under review and will inform schools, parents and pupils of the plans ahead of February half term.

“The government remains committed to supporting young people’s education, including providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for those who need them, as well as partnering with mobile data companies and online education resource providers.

"We will continue to work to reopen schools as soon as possible.”

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