Schools cannot be ordered to stay open during local lockdowns, says minister

The Government has admitted it cannot order schools to stay open during local lockdowns.

Schools minister, Nick Gibb, told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that the government will not be ensuring schools rather than pubs are kept open during future local lockdowns – as the decisions will be made by regional directors of public health based on local situations.

Mr Gibb, who insisted that all schools will reopen in September despite localised restrictions in northern regions seeing spikes in cases, told Today: “It’s a more nuanced response. It does have to depend on the facts of the case and that’s why the local director of public health will be responsible for the response to that spike.”

Pressed on whether schools should be the last to close, he said: “What I’m saying is that all children will be returning to school in September, including in those areas that are currently subject to a local lockdown – Manchester, Greater Manchester, Leicester and so on – because it is important children are back in school.

“But you can’t decree this for every single case and it will depend on the circumstances of a local increase in the infection rate, and that is why it is being led by the director of public health in localities. But we want all children back in school.”

It comes after children’s commissioner Anne Longfield demanded in a statement on Wednesday that the reopening of schools is “prioritised”. Ms Longfield insisted schools must be first to reopen and last to close during any local lockdowns.

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Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, has said schools must be the priority for staying open in any future lockdown (PA)

Last week, as regional restrictions were announced, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, warned that the UK may have reached its limit for reopening – meaning venues currently open may have to close in order to allow institutions such as schools to reopen.

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the decision to impose the lockdown, has also suggested ministers would need to “row back on the relaxation of restrictions”, such as in social and leisure venues and with increased working from home, to allow a full-time return to schools.

He told Today: “I mean that really is a policy decision, but I’m just saying, in my view, it is likely that some form of those measures will be necessary to maintain control of transmission.”

Prof Ferguson, whose advice continues to inform the Government’s response despite his resignation from the Sage advisory group, said there is some evidence older teenagers transmit the virus just as effectively as adults.

“The risk then is that big schools, comprehensives, universities, FE (further education) colleges, link lots of households together, reconnect the social network which social distancing measures have deliberately disconnected. And that poses a real risk of amplification of transmission, of case numbers going up quite sharply,” he said.



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