School closures in parts of England could drag on until mid-February as experts fear Tier 4 isn’t enough to control a new strain of coronavirus.
Government sources warned there was no guarantee that a million pupils whose primary schools have shut will all return on January 18.
This week it emerged around 15% of England’s primary schools, in 50 council areas, will shut to all except vulnerable and key workers’ children.
But there is no guarantee these local closures will all end when the “contingency framework” is reviewed in two weeks’ time, The Mirror reports.
The latest scientific advice warns the virus is “highly unlikely” to be brought under control if schools stay open.
A government source told the Telegraph: “The closure of schools until mid-February is an entirely possible scenario.
“We don’t have the data for Christmas yet but we will by January 18 and it’s difficult to see that being an improvement.”
Gavin Williamson said yesterday he wanted to keep closures “as short as possible” but did not give a cut-off date.
Speaking to the Mirror, an insider suggested a mid-February date was “pessimistic” but did not rule it out.
A second source told the Telegraph: “We have been careful not to say they will definitely reopen on January 18 because we don’t know that.”
78% of England is now under Tier 4 rules, essentially a copy of the November lockdown in which people are ordered to stay at home.
However, schools are still open by default under Tier 4, unless closed under a specific local order.
Scientists believe Tier 4 rules alone are not enough to bring the R number below 1 because the new variant is more infectious.
Research presented to government advisors estimated the new variant added 0.39 to the R number and 71% to the growth rate of the virus.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned on December 22: “It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.”
SAGE added that, even if all schools were to shut, they still didn’t know if that would be enough to bring the R number below 1.
“Analysis of this will not be possible until mid-January.” they added.
A government source told the Mirror the scientific advice would be balanced against the harm to children of being out of school.
“The government has said education is a national priority,” they said.
“You quickly move into the debate about effects of closing schools in young people and the difficult balance that has to be found between controlling the virus and protecting the lives of young people, some of whom lead very difficult lives.”
The primary schools were shut under a ‘contingency framework’, which was activated this week and will be reviewed by January 18.
The areas hit are 23 boroughs of London, 11 boroughs in Essex, 9 boroughs in Kent, two in East Sussex, four in Hertfordshire, and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.
The list has prompted a backlash, with schools open in some parts of the capital but not others right next door.
Eight London councils whose schools remain open called for their areas to be added to the list.
Any changes to the hotspot areas will be decided by government, Public Health England, the NHS and Joint Biosecurity Centre based on new infections, positivity rates, and pressures on the NHS.
The ‘contingency framework’ affects primary schools, secondary schools and colleges.
For now, there is no change to secondary schools or colleges because they are only returning from January 18 anyway.
However, if the framework continues beyond January 18 it would likely force Years 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12 to stay at home in the worst-hit areas.
Some or all areas could be removed from the closure list from January 18, but others could also be added to it.
Children who are at home are meant to receive remote learning, but experts – including Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield and Education Committee chief Robert Halfon – have warned home learning widens the gap between students.
The R number is the average number of people infected by each person with Covid-19. If it rises above 1, the virus grows exponentially.
Tier 4 rules – which order pubs, hairdressers and gyms but not schools to shut – are almost exactly the same as the November lockdown.
Ministers have rolled out Tier 4 in a bid to bring the new strain under control.
But SAGE said such measures were “highly unlikely” to bring the R below 1, and shutting schools would help push the number down.
Secondary school closures would affect the R number more than primary school closures, SAGE added.