Parents should send their children to primary school on Monday as long as they are open in their area, the prime minister has said.
Boris Johnson said there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe”.
The two-week school closures in London and the South East of England were “exceptional” due to a fast-spreading new variant of Covid-19, he said.
But the prime minister did not rule out further school closures and indicated tougher measures could be introduced.
Mr Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show the risk to children was “very, very low” and the benefit of education was “so huge”.
Most primary schools in England, except those in London and parts of the South East, are expected to open on Monday.
However, unions are telling primary school staff it is unsafe to return to work and are calling for remote learning to be introduced across all primary schools.
Some local authorities have also expressed concerns about reopening schools after the Christmas break.
Mr Johnson said that while school closures would be kept “under constant review”, the government would be “driven by public health considerations and by the massive importance of education”.
“And if you think about the history of the pandemic, we’ve kept schools going for a long, long time in areas where the pandemic has really been at really high levels,” he said.
On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that all of London’s primaries would remain shut to most pupils, after pressure from local councils to reverse an earlier decision to keep only schools in certain boroughs closed.
What’s happening with schools across the UK?
Most primary schools in England will return on 4 January, but in London and some surrounding areas they will not open for most pupils until 18 January. Secondary schools in England will stagger their return with pupils taking exams in 2021 starting on 11 January, and other year groups returning in person on 18 January.
In Wales, local councils have been told they can be “flexible” with when they open – with many schools aiming to return for face-to-face lessons from 11 January.
In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until 11 January. In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.
In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to 11 January, and the following week will be online learning only. A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for 18 January but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned measures may have to go further with a cabinet meeting to be held on Monday.
Mr Johnson said his message to councils and schools was to be “guided by the public health advice” which at the moment is “that schools are safe in those areas where we’re not being driven by the new variant to close them”.
But he said “we’ve got to be humble in the face of the impact of this new variant of the virus” and warned there would be “a very difficult few weeks and months” until the vaccine comes into effect.
The prime minister admitted the tier system in England may need to get tougher and “clearly school closures which we had to do in March is one of those things” but added it was “not necessarily something we want to do”.
His comments came after Brighton and Hove Council advised primary schools to switch to remote learning and after Birmingham City Council said it would back head teachers if they did not think it was safe to open after a risk assessment.
Keeping schools open for all pupils has been one of the red lines ever since the first national lockdown.
All the evidence so far suggests primary school children have one of the lowest levels of infection when it comes to symptomatic cases.
If you include asymptomatic infection the picture changes, but the evidence suggests such cases are less likely to lead to onward spread.
And, of course, the risk of serious illness in this group is pretty rare.
The rise of the new variant has increased cases generally, although Public Health England says there is still no evidence yet that this new variant transmits more in children than other variants.
There is understandable concern about teachers. Research by the Office for National Statistics suggests they have been at no greater risk of infection than other professions working outside the home.
The new variant could, of course, change this, which is why the unions are concerned.
Asked whether exams should be cancelled, Mr Johnson did not answer directly but said “we’ve got to be realistic” about the pace at which the new variant was spreading and its impact on the NHS.
The National Education Union has advised its members it is not safe to work in primary schools and said all schools should remain closed for a further two weeks, while other major teaching unions have called for a period of remote learning while safety measures are put in place.
Head teachers in Wales as well as England have begun legal action to force ministers to reveal data behind the decision for some schools to reopen – which the Department for Education said are based on new infections and pressure on the NHS in local areas.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called for teachers to be vaccinated “as a priority”, as she said that any school closure should be for “the absolute minimum of time and that time must be used very well”.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said “children’s lives can’t just be put on hold”, echoing the point that school closures should be kept to an “absolute minimum”.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has warned millions of parents and children are facing a “chaotic situation” at school on Monday and said the government’s “top-down” and “blanket” approach to schools reopening should be changed to allow head teachers to make decisions based on local public health advice.
- BEST OF 2020: Barack Obama reads from his new and compelling presidential memoir
- BEST OF 2020: Grounded with Louis Theroux
Are you a parent of schoolchildren? Or are you a teacher? How will this advice affect you? Email email@example.com.
Please include a contact number if you are willing to speak to a BBC journalist. You can also get in touch in the following ways: