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‘Arbitrary’ new date for reopening schools risks more lockdowns, unions say

BORIS JOHNSON was slammed today for announcing an “arbitrary” date for schools to reopen, risking yet another lockdown if safety measures are not in place.

Abandoning his previous talk of children returning to class soon after the February half-term break, the Prime Minister told the Commons that he hopes schools will reopen on March 8 if the government hits its target of vaccinating the most vulnerable groups by the middle of next month.

He based this date on the idea that the most vulnerable will have developed some level of immunity against Covid-19 within three weeks of their first jab, coinciding with the week starting March 8.

Despite the ongoing race to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups, the toll of Covid-related deaths surpassed 100,000 earlier this week.

Mr Johnson said that, in light of the daily number of new cases and deaths falling, he hopes over the coming weeks to be able to “populate the diary” with estimated dates for relaxing some lockdown rules.

But the National Education Union (NEU) and teaching union NASUWT said that the March 8 date for reopening schools – three weeks before the Easter break – risks more lockdown restrictions in future.

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said that Mr Johnson’s plan fails to recognise the role that schools have played in transmission of the virus.

She added: "If we come out too early, we will end up in lockdown again.

“It would have been fine to have set out a road map [to reopen schools], but to suggest a date at this stage runs the risk of creating false hope.

“The PM may now be immune to the embarrassment of U-turns, but school leaders, teachers and support staff, not to mention families and students, are utterly exhausted by them.”

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said that the announcement of the “arbitrary date” could be “profoundly unhelpful to parents and to those working in schools.”

He urged government to work with the teaching profession to draw up a “clear plan” for reopening schools when the lockdown ends.

During Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that school workers should be inoculated at half-term, after the most vulnerable have all received a jab.

The NEU and NASUWT have been campaigning for priority vaccination of education workers.

However, Mr Johnson failed to respond directly to Sir Keir’s suggestion.

The Prime Minister also made no mention of higher education, the University College Union (UCU) pointed out.

General secretary Jo Grady condemned his failure to provide certainty to students and staff as “scandalous.”

The government needs to keep all but essential teaching online until at least April in colleges and until the end of this academic year in universities, the UCU said. 

Ms Grady added: “Staff in further and higher education need to be able to plan their work over the coming months in the knowledge they will not be forced to do unnecessary and unsafe in-person activities.

“That includes working in libraries, offices on campus and other potentially unsafe environments, as well as seminar rooms and laboratories.

“University and college staff are burnt out from the chaotic and unsustainable demands which the sector has placed on them this year. We need certainty and stability if staff are to continue delivering the best possible remote learning for students.”

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