UK PM faces pressure to reopen schools despite pandemic


LONDON – The UK government faced growing pressure on Monday to detail a strategy to reopen schools in England, following a backlash from lawmakers about reports they could remain closed for months.

A dozen MPs from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives have warned publicly that pupils risk becoming the pandemic’s “forgotten victims” and demanded schools fully reopen sooner.

The group — which includes former minister Esther McVey and Graham Brady, head of an influential committee of Conservative lawmakers — backed a parents’ pressure group campaign on the issue.

“We need to get our children learning again – with clarity from @educationgovuk and an education routemap out of the coronavirus,” Conservative MP Rob Halfon, chairman of parliament’s watchdog education committee, said on Twitter.

“The engine of government should be directed towards opening our schools. We face an epidemic of educational poverty and mental health otherwise.”

However, Halfon’s bid to force a government statement on the issue in parliament Monday failed after House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle opted against selecting his urgent question on the issue.

During a visit to a vaccination site in northwest London, Johnson said officials were reviewing key data daily and that teachers and parents would be told “as much as we can, as soon as we can”.

“Schools, obviously, will be a priority but I don’t think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infection,” he added.

Johnson closed English schools to all but the children of key workers this month as he ordered a third national lockdown after Covid-19 infections spiked.

The surge has been blamed on the emergence of a more contagious virus variant first identified in southeast England in September.

Quarantine hotels

Ministers had hoped schools might reopen in February but Health Secretary Matt Hancock declined on Sunday to guarantee that it would happen even by early April.

The UK government sets education policy in England. The sector is handled by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where schools have also been shut.

The dramatic spike in cases through December has led to unprecedented levels of hospitalisations and fatalities, with Britain now approaching 100,000 deaths.

The number of new cases has now begun to fall and the country appears on course to meet a target of vaccinating nearly 15 million by the middle of next month.

Johnson said on Monday that it could mean “looking at the potential of relaxing some measures” but did not offer details.

Downing Street aides later insisted that would not happen before February 15.

Meanwhile, the government is also being urged to beef up its borders policy as several countries around the world tighten travel rules over fears of new virus strains.

Ministers have for weeks been mulling whether to require all incoming travellers to isolate in hotels, and a decision is expected within days.

Earlier this month, the UK scrapped its “travel corridors” from countries with lower caseloads following the emergence of new variants, and now asks arrivals to show negative Covid-19 tests and then self-isolate.

But following calls for even stricter curbs, senior ministers are due to discuss on Tuesday introducing an obligation on arriving travellers to pay to quarantine at a designated hotel.