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Tory MPs Warn “It Will Go Down Very Badly” If New Covid Variants Stop Schools Re-Opening On 8 March

Tory MPs are calling on the government to stick to the plan to reopen schools from 8 March (PA)

6 min read

A host of senior Tories are warning the government they will not accept an ongoing need to tackle new Covid variants as a reason to delay re-opening schools beyond 8 March.

With schools in Scotland and Wales aiming to readmit pupils from 22 February, a former Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome: “If the government did not follow through on opening schools I think that would go down very badly indeed with colleagues” next month.

Former chief whip Mark Harper said the current plan “will be quite hard to backslide off, and we shouldn't to be honest”.

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, agreed. “It will be done and it needs to be done,” he said.

“I think that is the mood within government as well," Walker continued. 

"There's a spring in the step of government, I think they're feeling that they're going to crack this.”

A number of MPs pointed to the announcement by Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday that pupils would begin to start coming back to the classroom after the February half-term “puts some pressure on” ministers in Westminster to stick to their own promises about 8 March.

But critics point out that the current infection rate in Scotland of 142 per 100,000 people is half that of England’s 282, as is the rate in Wales, which also hopes to re-open schools on 22 February.

The discovery of a number of new, more virulent variants of coronavirus has also threatened to slow the move towards re-opening schools amid fears of undoing the work done in driving down the infection rate.

But one senior Tory said fears over new variants should not factor given the number of people who will have been vaccinated, especially in light of evidence that inoculating people has a significant effect on reducing transmission.

They told PoliticsHome that although the South African variant and others are highly transmissible “there are relatively few susceptible hosts” left because of prior resistance in the community, as well as the vaccination programme and shielding and the seasonal effect in driving down the spread of the disease.Harper believed that evidence of the vaccine's impact in Israel, which has administered the most doses of any country in the world, as well as a slight downturn in the number of deaths and hospitalisations in the UK was promising. 

“All the clinical data, all the real world data, basically backs up what the trials said, which is these vaccines work,” he said. 

“They're delivering the right results which is a very positive sign, and in which case, I do think you can you can then get schools open on 8 March.”

With a review of the Covid-19 restrictions due on 15 February, another MP said: “It seems to me most likely the pressures are going to be building for return to normality at that point, starting with schools.”

They said many of their colleagues in Parliament would agree, and although dire warnings about the Kent variant had seen only a small number of Conservative MPs rebel at the last vote on restrictions, things could be much more sizeable this time.

“The opposition that we were building so visibly at the time of the second lockdown, much of it melted away into abstentions on the third,” they said.

“But I think that was because of the sort of panic about NHS capacity. I don't think it meant that they have become any less concerned about the other damage that was being done by this, it was just a lot more pressure on them not to not to vote against it. 

“So I think the numbers will be greater now than they would have been at the time of the second lockdown.”

Sir Charles said the chance of a large scale rebellion in the Commons is not just about what happens with pupils in March, but it is also “what happens in April if they’re not back”.

“It's just not sustainable for them not to be back in April”, he said, adding the “absolute deadline” for all schools to be fully open is the start of the summer term.

“We can’t go on like this, because ultimately it will lead to the destruction of our economy, poverty, and early deaths on a scale that dwarves what's going on now,” he added.

By March, schools will have faced disruption for a full year, which is also likely to put pressure on sticking to an 8 March return. 

“We’re now staring down the barrel of the anniversary of this all starting,” one MP said.  

“It really starts to hit home, so I think if the government was trying to spin lots of stuff about dangerous new variants, and reasons why we can't open things up by Easter, they'd be in a difficult place. 

"I just think there'd be an appetite for it, which will coincide with the seasonal fall away of the virus, and obviously a lot of vaccinations.”

The one-year anniversary of restrictions will also mean the government has to make a decision on extending the Coronavirus Act, which expires at the end of March.

“Assuming the government is not getting rid of all restrictions at the end of March, which I don't think it will be, it’s going to have to bring forward some restrictions from the period it starts from through to some period of a month or two months," Mr Harper, co-chair of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said. 

"The PM’s going to have to have those voted on as well so it is going to have to get stuff through Parliament.

"I think public opinion is in a place on schools where I think the government couldn't assume that the Labour Party wouldn't be in the other lobby if it didn't get schools back.”

Harper is calling for the end of the legislation outlining Covid-19 regulations as the vaccine rollout meets its targets.

“Once you've done the top nine groups and you take that 99% of the deaths and about 80% of the hospitalisations, I think you'd struggle to explain why there are any rules left, as in law," he said. 

“But that's kind of what I see as the sort of endgame, and there's gonna be a debate about how quickly we get that.

“You can't go 'this is all going fantastically well and we're vaccinating millions of people’, and then go ‘oh yeah, but we can't we can't get everything going again’.”

Sir Charles agreed, welcoming reports the country will not return to the tier system post-lockdown, but added: “I think I am feeling incredibly optimistic that the government will begin to set out a roadmap that people can buy into.

“Because fundamentally people need something to look forward to.”

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