UK government under pressure over help for students during lockdown

Government ministers are under pressure to explain how they will help students in England through the seven-week closure of schools and universities ordered as part of the latest Covid-19 lockdown.

Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, said on Tuesday there was no alternative to taking the decision to close schools until mid-February at least. Lockdown rules take effect on Wednesday.

Mr Gove said it was with “the heaviest of hearts” that the government had closed schools and cancelled GCSEs and A Levels, the key secondary school exams. Downing Street had insisted as recently as Sunday that schools should remain open and that exams would go ahead.

Conservative MPs and teachers’ leaders have been critical of the abrupt government about-turn on schools, with pupils at some primary schools returning to class for one day before gates were locked to all pupils except vulnerable children and children of key workers.

Mr Gove told the BBC’s Today programme it was vital there was a “fair” system for assessing pupils who had been facing exams and that ministers would talk to Ofqual, the exams regulator, to devise a new system.

He said the government’s priority was to reopen schools and a review of the lockdown would take place during the school half term in the week beginning February 15, but much would depend on the speed of the vaccination rollout.

Ministers are being urged to work with schools to improve provision for home learning during the lockdown and to avoid the chaos that surrounded last year’s cancelled exams.

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Boris Johnson, the prime minister, will table regulations on Tuesday to impose England’s third Covid-19 lockdown, a decision announced on Monday evening.

Labour leader Keir Starmer backed the new lockdown and said his party would support it during an emergency session of the House of Commons on Wednesday.

But he said on Tuesday there should be more generous levels of sick pay and furlough help for parents forced to stay at home to look after school-age children.

He called for Britain to revive “the spirit of March” — a reference to last year’s lockdown in the first wave of the epidemic — and asked for volunteers to help administer up to 14m vaccines by mid-February.

Sir Keir said it was “rubbish” that he had made a habit of urging the government to take tough measures against Covid-19 just hours before Mr Johnson acted.

Mr Johnson warned on Monday the country faced a very “tough” few weeks as a vaccine is rolled out, with the UK’s four chief medical officers warning that hospitals could be swamped later this month without new restrictions.

“The government is once again instructing you to stay at home,” he said in a televised address. “Our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time in the pandemic.”

For the next seven weeks, people will be told not to leave their homes except for specified purposes such as essential work — including construction — or to buy food and medicines.

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