Covid-19: School closures will be ‘as short as possible’

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Year eight pupils wear face masks as a precaution against the transmission of the novel coronavirus as they queue in a corridor before attending an English lesson at Moor End Academy in Huddersfield

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There is “absolutely no reason” schools in England will not be ready to mass test pupils when they return next term, the education secretary has said.

Gavin Williamson said he wanted school closures to be as “short as possible” after

delaying their reopening amid surging coronavirus cases.

It comes as people are being warned to not to gather on New Year’s Eve.

Some 20 million people in England have been told to “stay at home” after tier four was expanded at midnight.

They join the 24 million already in the toughest restrictions – meaning non-essential businesses must close, and people should stay home unless they have a “reasonable excuse”.

Tier four restrictions also mean people cannot meet others indoors, unless they are part of a support bubble, while businesses such as hairdressers and nail bars must shut.

On Wednesday the UK recorded a further 50,023 new Covid cases, as well as 981 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test – more than double Tuesday’s total.

Map showing new tier areas

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An intensive care doctor has also urged people not to gather and said those who do not follow social distancing rules or wear masks have “blood on their hands”.

Prof Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine at University College London, said: “It is making me actually very angry now that people are laying the blame on the virus, and it is not the virus, it is people, people are not washing their hands, they are not wearing their masks.”

NHS England medical director Prof Stephen Powis said it was “absolutely vital” people stayed home and did not mix, saying “Covid loves a crowd”, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock said people must take “personal responsibility”.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has said there should be “no gatherings, no house parties” for Hogmanay as all of the mainland remains in the highest level of restrictions.

A six-week lockdown began in Northern Ireland on 26 December, while Wales also has a national lockdown with people banned from visiting other households.

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The warnings came after the UK announced the approval of a second vaccine for coronavirus, the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, with the first doses due to be given on Monday.

The latest figures show 786,000 people have received the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine between 8 December and 27 December, NHS England said.

GPs are to be offered £10 for every care home resident vaccinated and NHS staff will also be prioritised now that the Oxford jab has been approved, the health service said.

Deepti Gurdasani, epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told BBC Radio 5 Live there appeared to be a “bottleneck” in the delivery of the jabs and said the volume of vaccines being given was “six times lower” than the two million target.

A total of 232,169 people tested positive for Covid in England at least once in the week to 23 December, up 33% on the previous week and the highest weekly rise on record, the latest NHS Test and Trace figures show.

Of the 211,914 people transferred to test and trace, 85.8% were reached and asked for details of recent close contacts, down from 88.6% the week before.

Chart showing UK Covid case numbers

Mr Williamson announced on Wednesday that secondary schools across most of England are to remain closed for an extra two weeks for most pupils, to help regain control of coronavirus amid concerns about a fast-spreading new variant.

The education secretary told BBC Breakfast that remote learning would be “mandatory” from the week commencing 11 January for all secondary students, other than years 11 and 13 who would physically return to school on that date.

Defending the delay to term, he said the government was “battling this hidden enemy” saying there was £78m of funding for schools to get testing up and running.

Equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) would be delivered next week and there would be support from the military.

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Analysis box by Nick Triggle, health correspondent

As soon as news emerged of the new faster-spreading variant questions began to be asked about schools.

An analysis by Public Health England released this week showed there was no evidence it was more able to infect children than other variants.

But that does not mean infection rates have not been rising among children.

As with all age groups, the proportion of school children testing positive increased during December – with more virus around there was more transmission.

Primary school children however still remain one of the age groups with the lowest infection rates.

But the sheer scale of the infection levels in the worst-hit areas means ministers wanted to buy themselves time, hence some primaries will remain closed.

If large numbers of pupils and staff need to isolate, it makes the smooth-running of schools impractical.

Ministers are hoping mass testing coupled with the tougher restrictions – three-quarters of England are now in the highest tier – will be enough to curb infection levels and keep a lid on the spread in schools.

But it is clear they will have to tread carefully to achieve that.

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Mr Williamson said more than 85% of primary schools were reopening on Monday and he wanted any closures to be “short”.

At a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the “sheer pace of spread of new variant means we have to take tougher action in some areas”.

But teaching unions said the move did not go far enough, and one labelled it another “last-minute mess”.

Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher of Wales High near Rotherham and vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We’ve all seen this coming and we would have preferred to have been able to plan for this before the end of last term so that parents can be made aware of it.”

In Northern Ireland primary pupils will be taught remotely until 11 January while online learning will be in place for some post-primary pupils for the entirety of January.

Scotland has set a restart date of 18 January for face-to-face learning, while in Wales pupils are due to return on a staggered basis.

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