Schools Look Set To Open On 8 March But Ministers Are Cautious About Revealing Details
Dominic Raab refused to be drawn on whether all years will return to school on 8 March (PA)
Ministers hoping to re-open schools on 8 March remain guarded over details of plans, despite 'optimism' from Boris Johnson and growing unrest from lockdown-sceptic MPs keen to confirm a route back to normal life.
“I think we can feel confident that we will be able to start that process of getting schools open on [8 March]," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.
“And, of course, there'll be other measures that the Prime Minister wants to set out.
“But it'll be based on the evidence and the success that we've had in terms of rolling out the vaccine and the impact that has not just on reducing the number of cases, but also reducing the pressure on the NHS.”
But Raab refused to confirm whether school reopenings would see all children return at once or staggered, insisting that it was too early to know what would be possible.
“I think we need to wait to evaluate the data carefully and allow those plans to be put in place,”
Reports in The Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday suggest the government is aiming for all year groups to return in early March, while lockdown rules will be relaxed to allow two households to sit down outside together.
It comes as:
- A ban on evictions brought in during the first lockdown is set to remain in place until March, the government has announced. It was due to expire on 22 February.
- International travellers arriving from 33 “red list” countries” will be required to book a 10-day stay in quarantine hotels at their own expense from Monday as part of government plans to limit the arrival of new cases of the virus.
- The UK will enter its next stage of the vaccine rollout this week with 1.2 million letters already sent to over-65s and the clinically vulnerable.
- Over 14.5 million people have now been given their first coronavirus vaccine dose as of Friday, while half a million have had two doses.
- Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield told Sky News that she feared one in six children will never catch up and called for greater mental health support in all schools.
A source told The Sunday Times, however, that “getting pupils in class is the PM’s top priority” and that he was willing to accept a slow easing of social distancing measures in exchange for the full return of schools.
Boris Johnson told reporters yesterday he was “optimistic” that he would be able to announce the gradual easing of restrictions in his lockdown roadmap due to be set out on 22 February.
He added, however, that the UK “has to be cautious” as it moves forward and that any relaxation must be done “prudently”.
“Our children's education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course as and when we can prudently, cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well,” he said.
Labour said it supported the government’s aims, and agreed with the level of caution being taken regarding what steps will be announced on the 22 February.
“I don't think anybody is expecting lockdown to end in one day, in one snap, but we have to be driven by the data, not just dates. We have to really slam that R number right down,” shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
Reopening schools on 8 March is a “reasonable aspiration”, he added, but said the government needed to “put in place measures to mitigate against the virus taking off again” to prevent schools closing again.
“We’re five weeks into this lockdown, and this lockdown needs to be the final lockdown,” Ashworth continued.
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson also urged caution, telling Sophy Ridge: “The government does need to consider the advice that they receive and it may be necessary to stagger that.”
Alongside the reopening of schools, it has been reported that Johnson may also promise the easing of some social distancing measures in his 22 February roadmap.
People will be able to meet a friend for a coffee on a park bench or have a picnic, the Sunday Telegraph reports, when previously only exercise was allowed with someone from another household.
Outdoor dining and recreational activities such as golf and tennis are also expected to resume from April, source told the paper.
There have also been suggestions that pubs and restaurants could reopen for food only by April provided they agree not to sell alcohol.
Companies with more than 50 employees could be given rapid coronavirus tests to help workers return to the office, the Telegraph reports.
The optimistic news comes as the UK is set to hit its target of vaccinating the majority of the 14.6 million people in the top four priority groups.
Some backbench Tory MPs, however, have argued that the success of the rollout means all lockdown restrictions should be lifted by the end of Spring.
Members of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), writing on behalf about 60 Tory MPs, said that since the top nine priority groups should have been offered the vaccine by the end of April there would be “no justification” for restrictions to remain after that date.
"We've set out a very careful process in our letter to tie the removal of restrictions to the rollout of vaccines," Tory MP Mark Harper, chair of the CRG, told LBC’s Tom Swarbick.
He continued: "All these rules were put in place to save lives and protect the NHS - and, actually, the life-saving and the NHS protection is going to be done by the vaccine - not by these restrictions."
Their assessment was dismissed by Raab, however, who told Sky News: “We’re not making what feels to me a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact the measures have had on the transmission, and the hospital admissions.”
The foreign secretary also remained guarded on reports that social distancing measures could be relaxed, saying that though the UK had “made good progress” in reducing transmission of coronavirus, “we do need to be very careful in how we proceed”.
“We don’t want to see that unravel because we go too far, too quick,” he added.