Boris Johnson urges parents to prepare for school return as he says coronavirus risk to children is 'very small'
Boris Johnson has urged parents to send their children back to school in September
Boris Johnson has urged parents to prepare for schools to return as he insisted the risk to children from coronavirus is "very small".
The Prime Minister made the personal plea to parents just a week before schools in England are set to reopen, saying keeping children out of the classroom was "far more damaging" for their health and well-being than the virus.
Earlier this month, Mr Johnson said there was a "moral duty" to get all children back into school and described the safe return as a "national priority".
The push to reopen schools comes amid concern that lockdown has widened the gap between children from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds, with research showing that kids from the poorest households spent on average 30% more time learning during the coronavirus restrictions compared to their poorest peers.
And it comes as the Government fights to regain the initiative on education following the furore over England's exam results.
Speaking on Sunday night, Mr Johnson said it was "vitally important" to ensure schools returned in September.
"I have previously spoken about the moral duty to reopen schools to all pupils safely, and I would like to thank the school staff who have spent the summer months making classrooms Covid-secure in preparation for a full return in September," he said.
"We have always been guided by our scientific and medical experts, and we now know far more about coronavirus than we did earlier this year.
"As the chief medical officer has said, the risk of contracting Covid-19 in school is very small and it is far more damaging for a child's development and their health and well-being to be away from school any longer.
He added: "This is why it's vitally important that we get our children back into the classroom to learn and to be with their friends. Nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school."
The comments follow a rare joint statement from the chief medical officers and their deputies in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, saying that that while there was "no risk-free options", sending children back to schools was the "best course of action".
"We are confident that multiple sources of evidence show that a lack of school increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues," they wrote.
"School improves health, learning, socialisation and opportunities throughout the life course including employment.
"It has not been possible to reduce societal inequalities through the provision of home-based education alone.
"School attendance is very important for children and young people."
The group said their advice was based on scientific research which showed an "exceptionally small risk" of school age children dying for the disease, and that the spread of the virus among pupils was "probably not a common route of transmission".
And Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said: "The chances of many children being damaged by not going to school are incredibly clear.
"And therefore the balance of risk is very strongly in favour of children going to school because many more are likely to be harmed by not going than harmed by going, even during this pandemic."
'CHAOS AND CONFUSION'
But the Government's efforts have come under fire from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who said "chaos, confusion and incompetence" stemming from the botched handling of exam results in England had put the plans at "serious risk".
Sir Keir said ministers had instead "wasted" two weeks when they should have been working on their back to school plans clearing up the "mess" of A-level results.
“Ministers should have spent the summer implementing a national plan to get all children back to school," he said.
"Instead, the last two weeks have been wasted clearing up a mess of the government’s own making over exam results.”
The Labour leader added: "Restoring public confidence and getting a grip on the Department for Education must be Downing Street’s number-one priority this week.
"Failure to do so will leave the government’s promise of ‘levelling up’ in tatters."
Teachers' union the NEU meanwhile branded the Government "negligent in the extreme" as they accused ministers of failing to do enough to support staff ahead of the return.
The NEU's general secretary Kevin Courtney said: "Government should be employing more teachers and seeking extra teaching spaces to allow education to continue in a Covid secure manner if infections rise.
"This should include employment of student teachers who have finished their courses and not yet found jobs, as well as mobilisation of supply staff."
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