The UK government has instructed all primary schools in London to remain closed and not return for the new term on Monday amid a surge in COVID-19 infections rates across England. After an urgent review, the Department for Education (DfE) decided that the “education contingency framework” will be applicable across all of the UK capital instead of just a few boroughs.
It has led to growing calls from the Opposition and teachers’ unions for all schools in England to remain shut due to fears of adding to the pressure on the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) with already rising hospital admissions.
“As infection rates rise across the country, and particularly in London, we must make this move to protect our country and the NHS. We will continue to keep the list of local authorities under review, and reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can,” said UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.
According to officials, evidence shows the new strain of COVID-19 is increasing across the country, with the situation in London “worsening”.
The majority of the cases identified in London, the South East and the East of England are of the new variant. Infection rates have increased faster than expected in these areas where the new strain has been circulating and stronger measures are required to get the virus under control, the government said.
“Over the past week we have seen infections and hospitalisations rise sharply across London and hospitals are coming under increased pressure.
While our priority is to keep as many children as possible in school, we have to strike a balance between education and infection rates and pressures on the NHS,” said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
From Monday, London primary schools will be required to provide remote learning to all children but vulnerable and critical worker children who will continue to attend school.
“To support high quality remote education during this period, the government expects to deliver over 50,000 laptops and tablets to schools across the country on Monday, January 4, and over 100,000 in total during the first week of term. Over 1 million devices will be provided in total,” the DfE said.
“The current plans for rapid testing in secondary schools and colleges remain in place, with two rapid tests available to all secondary and college students and staff at the start of term to identify asymptomatic cases. The first starter packs of up to 1,000 test kits will arrive at all secondary schools and colleges on 4 January,” it said.
While Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said closing all London schools was “the right decision” and praised the “constructive conversations over the past two days”, the Opposition Labour Party has accused the government of a U-turn after insisting that schools will remain open.
“This is yet another government U-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term,” said Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green.
“Gavin Williamson’s incompetent handling of the return of schools and colleges is creating huge stress for parents, pupils, and school and college staff and damaging children’s education,” she said.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint head of the National Education Union which has more than 450,000 members, called for all primary and secondary schools to be closed, saying “what is right for London is right for the rest of the country”.
The NASUWT union, which represents 300,000 teachers and headteachers, said the government had disregarded scientific advice suggesting nationwide school closures could be “essential in breaking the chain of coronavirus transmission”.
It comes as around 53,285 new Covid cases and a further 613 deaths were reported by the UK government on Friday, taking the death toll to over 74,000. The state-funded National Health Service (NHS) chiefs have warned that the next few weeks will be “nail-bitingly difficult”, with staff absences and the new coronavirus variant virus adding enormous pressure.