Schools could remain closed after Christmas unless parents get their children fully vaccinated against Covid before January, as Boris Johnson announced that children aged 12 to 15 will be offered their second jab from Monday to tackle a ‘tidal wave of Omicron’.
The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference this evening: ‘We know how crucial it is to keep children in school, so let’s all make sure our children and young people are vaccinated before they go back next term.’
Dozens of schools have shut across England, with many choosing to revert back to remote learning amid mounting fears of the Omicron variant sweeping the country.
However, the Government has repeatedly refused to promise that schools will reopen in January as it races to ‘boost’ millions of people in England.
Today, Education Minister Alex Burghart urged ‘as many people as possible to come forward’ to get their next vaccine dose – but could not promise that children would be taught in person. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi also refused to rule out closing schools in the New Year, while Health Secretary admitted ‘there are no guarantees’ classrooms would open in January.
Attendance figures show nearly 250,000 pupils were absent from school last week – the second highest figure this year. Around 17,000 teachers in England were also thought to be at home isolating with Covid.
Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Education Select Committee, warned ‘we are moving sadly towards ‘de facto’ school closures’ and urged the Government to create an ‘army’ of volunteers to keep schools open.
Public health officials are heaping pressure on Downing Street to impose more restrictions to tackle Omicron, as the UK recorded 78,610 new Covid cases.
UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries warned the strain is ‘probably the most significant threat’ since the start of the pandemic as she said cases would be ‘staggering’ compared to what has gone before. And England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told the Downing Street press briefing there were ‘two epidemics on top of one another’.
Boris Johnson said children aged 12 to 15 will be offered their second jab from Monday to tackle a ‘tidal wave of Omicron’
The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference this evening: ‘We know how crucial it is to keep children in school, so let’s all make sure our children and young people are vaccinated before they go back next term’
Members of the public queuing outside Manchester Town Hall for a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine
Worried Whitty tells people to pick the events they attend ‘carefully’ as Omicron sends daily Covid cases to highest level ever: 50% jump in a week sees 78,610 infections but Boris REFUSES his own experts’ plea for ‘Plan C’
Britain today announced its highest ever daily Covid cases number as the Omicron variant engulfs the nation and Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty delivered a stark warning over the need to think twice before attending Christmas parties.
A record 78,610 people tested positive in the past 24 hours, eclipsing the previous record by more than 10,000 — when 68,053 were posted on January 8 at the peak of the second wave.
Omicron already makes up a third of cases but Government modelling predicts up to 400,000 people are getting the mutant virus every day, with the strain spreading too faster for testing to keep up. Health chiefs have warned there could be a million daily infections by next month, translating into upwards of 4,000 hospital admissions — similar to levels seen during the second wave, but the projections are heavily disputed.
Just minutes after the sharp rise in Covid infections were announced, Professor Whitty told a Downing Street press conference that more records were going to be broken by the ultra-infectious Omicron variant and called for extra caution over reports from South Africa that the strain may be milder.
He urged people to ‘prioritise’ who they meet in the run up to Christmas, or risk catching the virus and spending the festive period alone.
Professor Whitty could not be pinned down on whether harsher lockdown curbs were necessary, pointing out that there were still several key unknowns about Omicron — such as how vaccines will perform and how severe it is.
But he added: ‘I think that what most people are doing is, and I would think this seems very sensible, is prioritising the social interactions that really matter to them and, to protect those ones, de-prioritising ones that matter much less to them.’
Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister, Stephen Morgan, said: ‘Children have been in and out of school facing ongoing disruption to education and wellbeing again this term. This cannot continue.
‘The Government has continuously failed to plan ahead, but must act now and use the Christmas holidays to prevent the chaos seen last January.
‘Labour is calling on Ministers to deliver a Christmas vaccine guarantee to ensure all 12 to 15-year-olds can get a jab during the holidays to keep kids learning next term.
‘This must be delivered alongside practical ventilation measures in all schools, so teachers are not forced to open windows this winter.’
Shadow Children’s Minister Helen Hayes added: ‘As Omicron infections rise it’s essentially the government acts now to ventilate classrooms and vaccinate young people so parents don’t feel they have to keep their kids at home to stop infections.
‘Children’s learning and happiness is best served by them being in school.’
Several schools in London and Kent have told parents take home all their children’s books and a laptop each in case they don’t come back to the classroom next month.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools across the country were suffering from ‘very severe low attendance’ as the Omicron variant continues to spread.
Some of the schools have had to close because of a lack of staff, but others were warned about the health risks of remaining open after seeing high infection rates.
Two schools in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, were told to shut this week by local public health teams. Mr Barton, speaking on BBC Breakfast, said the government body had taken the decision away from the headmaster on public health grounds.
On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there ‘are no guarantees’ that schools will be allowed to reopen in January.
This outraged public campaigners and education unions, with some saying the Government needed to do more to avoid any scenario in which the next school term could be disrupted.
Reacting to the shocking attendance figures, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: ‘Everyone is concerned about how this will play out over the next few weeks and the implications for January.
‘No one wants to see the sort of disruption to education that we experienced last winter. However, we are already seeing signs that schools are coming under increasing pressure.
‘The Government needs to think very carefully about the mitigations it needs to take to keep schools open next term. Doing nothing is not a plausible or realistic option.
‘It is essential that the Government does everything in its power now to reduce the spread of Covid in schools. That should include reviewing mitigation measures that could be reintroduced whilst transmission rates are high.’
He criticised the Government and local public health teams for giving ‘contradictory advice’ on what schools should be doing in the run-up to Christmas.
Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis Academy chain, said his schools are preparing to bring back bubbles, rota lessons, staggered starts and an extension of mask-wearing.
He said: ‘We are quite prepared for online learning. If we get to January 2 and the Prime Minister says all schools need to be shut, we are prepared. January is the great unknown. But Omicron is sweeping London now and it is going to sweep the country.’
Other unions and headteachers have called for the two-week Christmas holiday to be extended into January and a staggered start to the new term in 2022.
NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach has written to Mr Zahawi calling for masks in classrooms now for secondary schools.
A pedestrian walks past an electronic billboard promoting the Covid-19 vaccine booster programme in central London
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at a press conference to update the nation on the Covid-19 booster vaccine program in the Downing Street briefing room
He said: ‘We ask you to avoid a repeat of the confusion and chaos which last year impacted negatively on public and parental confidence and hampered the hard work of teachers and school and college leaders in their preparations at the start of 2021.
‘An immediate announcement from the Government on additional measures for schools and colleges is, we believe, essential before the majority of schools and colleges close for the Christmas break.’
There is however disagreement on what measures should be taken, with a spokesperson for the ASCL telling the Mail that they do not support the idea of a staggered return.
Clare Wagner, head of Henrietta Barnett School in Barnet, north London, told the Evening Standard: ‘Not only does testing take ages but you can’t have pupils in school before the test, and they can’t go into lessons until the results have come through so you have to have a staggered start’.
Headteachers say that there is ‘chaos’ in Britain’s education system with children already being taught online and now not returning to the classroom until January at the earliest.
Schools in areas with high infection rates such as London, the south-east and the East Midlands, say they are sending home entire year groups because they don’t have the teachers and supply teachers available.
Unions claim that in some schools up to half of staff are off sick, with some missing from work since November.
The return to home schooling for thousands of children came days after an alarming report warned that almost every child in the country has fallen behind at school because of Covid lockdowns – with pupils battling ‘endemic’ loneliness, boredom and misery during the pandemic.