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Wanting Children Back In School Does Not Make You A Lockdown Sceptic, MPs Warn

4 min read

The push to get children back into the classroom should not be seen as part of ‘anti-lockdown’ scepticism, a senior Tory has warned.

Chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon MP, has said his call on the government to provide a route-map for schools to reopen is not a message that lockdown restrictions should end entirely.

It comes after the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of MPs, which has consistently led the opposition to the strictest lockdown measures, intervened over schools returning. The group, which reportedly has as many as 70 Tory members, asked the government to set out a plan to get kids back in school once the top four most vulnerable groups had been vaccinated.

The CRG has been critical of some of the government’s coronavirus restrictions and cycles of lockdown, arguing they have been economically damaging.

Tory MP for Harrow, Halfon, told PoliticsHome: “I’m not a lockdown sceptic. I’m a permanent 'school-down' sceptic.

“I voted for the restrictions from the government because I understand difficult decisions need to be made, but the longer schools are closed, we are damaging our children’s life chances."

Halfon argued that scientific advice to the government was that schools were not significant vectors of trasmission, although there has been concern that while chidren are not becoming ill through the virus spreading in school, they could contribute to the spread of the virus in the community.

"The chief medical officer previously said closing schools had marginal effect on transmission rates and what we need, if they’re not going to open all of the schools all at once, at least have a phased opening in areas where coronavirus is low,” he continued. 

Another Tory MP who backs schools reopening but otherwise supports the continuation of lockdown measures said it is vital to distinguish between the two arguments.

They believed the CRG had highlighted the argument for schools reopening only as part of their wider push for lockdown measures to be relaxed so that the economy could be reopened again.

“It’s a good entry point for them into the debate. They’re also very influential,” the MP said.

“But the argument for a tough lockdown is still there at the moment given the high rates."

“I’m not a lockdown sceptic. I’m a permanent 'school-down' sceptic." – Tory MP and chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon

Pushing to end lockdown restrictions any time soon is not the “common sense view” of most mainstream Tory MPs outside of the CRG, the MP added. They said that schools would have to reopen sooner than other parts of society, especially as the arguments around food poverty and obstacles to digital connectivity continue to grow.

"As we approach school holidays, that’s when issues like school meals comes round again, and then the existing issue of digital access, and that's when you start to think that these things can only be answered by schools reopening," they said.

Despite initial resistance to closing schools at the start of this term, leading to many children returning after Christmas for a single day, Boris Johnson today struck a more cautious tone. “Schools are obviously a priority but I don't think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high, so as to lead to another great spread of infection," he said. 

Schools were initially due to reopen after the February half-term but with the NHS still buckling under a surge in hospital admissions, it is now expected they could be closed until at least March

Halfon said it should be possible to get some children back into school before Easter.

Chair of the CRG, Mark Harper, this morning said school reopening was the first step towards returning to normal and jumpstarting the economy. 

“All we’re asking for at this point is for the government to set out that sort of plan, based on milestones, based on evidence, so that school leaders, parents, children, have some hope and know what to expect,” he told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme.

Harper said when the top four groups are vaccinated, and a lag time of three weeks is added, there could be a 90 percent reduction in Covid deaths, and there will be a 55 percent reduction in hospitalisations, which might provide the chance to start easing restrictions and look at schools going back.

His figure on hospitalisations was sourced from a doctor’s analysis of intensive care admissions, BMJ and Covid-19 Actuary’s Response Group data.

Downing Street has previously said data from the Pfizer vaccine showed that it was 89 percent effective in protection against Covid between 15 and 21 days after the first dose.

Claire Milne, Acting Editor of Full Fact, said: “As coronavirus vaccines continue to be rolled out, there is much we simply don’t know yet. We don't know how many people will accept the vaccine, and we also don't know how these vaccines will affect transmission yet.”

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