Michael Gove has said reopening schools in January will involve “trade-offs” with other coronavirus restrictions as one of the government’s top scientific advisers said there would be “very, very tough choices” to keep the virus under control in January.
A decision is likely to be taken on Monday by Downing Street and the Department for Education as to whether schools can reopen on schedule in the face of calls from scientists for a delay to the staggered start to act as a firewall since limited Christmas mixing was permitted across parts of the UK.
Gove said he hoped primary school pupils and year 11 and year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January, with the rest going back later in the month – but said it would be kept under review.
“Teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer,” he told Sky News. “We do keep things under review but that is the plan.”
Gove told the BBC it was “our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible … We are talking to teachers and headteachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.
“As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school. But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.”
Boris Johnson has previously refused to rule out further school closures, telling a Downing Street press conference before Christmas he wanted schools to reopen “if we possibly can”.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the arguments around school reopenings were very finely balanced and the whole country would be facing an extremely difficult few weeks.
“Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society,” the Wellcome Trust director said.
“It is going be a trade-off between one or other. You cannot have everything. You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant. I think there are some very, very tough choices. We are going to see these continued pressures at least over the next two or three months.”
The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said parents would be anxious about reports that government scientific advisers had lobbied for extended school closures.
“The government is failing to be honest with parents and pupils about the return of schools in January,” Green said, but stopped short of calling for a delay to the restart.
“Parents, pupils and staff will be increasingly worried by the drip-feed of media reports saying scientists have advised the closure of schools in January, yet the prime minister has failed to be clear about the advice he has received.”
Green said it was “a litany of government failures” that put schools at risk of closure and said Johnson should hold a press conference on Monday to set out the advice he was following, along with the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.