Could primary schools reopen before Easter? Minister hails ‘encouraging’ data as health officials say there is a ‘strong case’ for allowing the youngest pupils to return to class before April

  • Vaccine Supply Minister Nadhim Zahawi spoke to broadcasters this morning
  • Public Health England said there was a ‘strong case’ for reopening primaries
  • Zahawi: ‘When schools can be safely reopened, it will be the first thing we do’ 

Primary school pupils could return to class before Easter in a boost for under-pressure families, a minister hinted today as medical experts suggested it was safe.

Vaccine Supply Minister Nadhim Zahawi said studies about infection rates at primary schools had been ‘encouraging’.

He spoke after a Public Health England expert said there was a ‘strong case’ for allowing primary-aged children to restart lessons at school, because of the low risk of spreading the infection.

“Everything we have learnt from the summer half-term and the recent autumn term indicates that they are safe to remain open,” PHE’s chief schools investigator Shamez Ladhani said.

Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast: ‘We’ve seen some encouraging data from Public Health England, and the Prime Minister reviews the data all the time, around primary schools.

‘The infection rates are much lower among primary school children than secondary – I think it is five times higher in secondary schools.

‘I think once we see the national infection rates continue to drop – we still have 37,000 people in hospital with Covid, but once we get to a place where schools can be safely reopened, it will be the first thing we do.’

Vaccine Supply Minister Nadhim Zahawi said studies about infection rates at primary schools had been ‘encouraging’.

He spoke after a Public Health England expert said there was a ‘strong case’ for allowing primary-aged children to restart lessons at school, because of the low risk of spreading the infection.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to confirm this week that hopes of a full return immediately after the half-term break next month have been abandoned.

Ministers have hinted that the reopening of schools could be delayed until after Easter – or even until May – prompting fury from many Conservative MPs.

Boris Johnson ducked questions about the issue yesterday. But Whitehall sources said last night that Mr Williamson has ordered officials to draw up options for the return of at least some classes and year groups before Easter if the pandemic eases.

The initial focus is likely to be on the youngest primary pupils who are hardest to teach remotely, and on older children in exam years.

Options to allow a return to school in areas where the virus has declined most sharply could also be considered, although a national restart is favoured.

Labour shadow schools minister Wes Streeting questioned whether schools were being prioritised by the Government, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘The Prime Minister said yesterday that he was looking at and hoping to ease restrictions from mid-February but then later the same day Downing Street was saying that schools may not reopen until Easter.

‘That does not sound to me like education being the priority.’

Mr Streeting said ministers lacked a plan on reopening schools and said Labour’s position was classrooms should be back in use before Easter ‘if the circumstances allow’.

He added: ‘We’re criticising ministers for lacking a plan and being passive bystanders when it comes to education and behaving as if everything is out of their control.

‘Of course the decision about a date has to be driven by the trajectory of the virus – we all understand that. But Government can and should be acting now.

‘And bluntly, given the absolute state we’ve seen from the Department for Education over the best part of the year with insufficient planning, poor rollout and delivery, whether it is on laptops or testing or support for safety measures in schools, it is entirely reasonable – indeed necessary – to ask the Government for a plan because if there is one thing we know from the Department for Education, it is that they are absolutely useless when it comes to planning and preparation and actively doing everything they can to get children learning.’

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