The Government has been criticised for creating “chaos” for parents after reversing its decision for some primary schools in London to open.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Friday confirmed that all London primary schools will remain shut next week as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.
But while the move was welcomed as the “right decision”, the Government was also accused of making another U-turn just days after it had told some schools to reopen for the new term.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the Government’s London schools decision had caused “huge stress” for pupils, families and staff.
She said: “This is yet another Government U-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term.
“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.
“This U-turn was needed to provide consistency in London.
“However, Gavin Williamson must still clarify why some schools in Tier 4 are closing and what the criteria for reopening will be.”
Under the Government’s initial plan, secondary schools and colleges were set to be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of January, while primary schools within 50 local authorities in London and the south of England were also told to keep their doors shut.
But in a change to those primary school proposals, Cabinet minister Mr Williamson said: “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.”
The decision comes after leaders of eight London boroughs asked Mr Williamson to reverse the decision, pointing out that some areas on the closure list had lower infection rates than those where schools had been told to reopen.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the U-turn and said: “The Government have finally seen sense and u-turned. All primary schools across London will be treated the same.
“This is the right decision.”
“Of course I accept it is inconvenient and isn’t helpful to have to change appointments and explain to people
It comes as the Government said there had been a further 53,285 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Friday, with another 613 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
This was down from a new record high of 55,892 cases reported on New Year’s Eve – the highest since mass testing began in late May.
NHS England on Friday said that a further 420 people who tested positive for coronavirus had died in hospital in England, including an eight-year-old child.
All except 12, aged between 55 and 90, had known underlying health conditions, it added.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on fatalities that have occurred in recent days, show there have now been 90,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
Meanwhile a senior medic told the PA news agency that people needed to follow guidance on handwashing, social distancing and face coverings to stop the “entirely preventable” spread of coronavirus
Adrian Boyle, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said staff are tired, feel helpless and at risk of burnout.
He told the PA the idea that coronavirus cannot be controlled just “doesn’t wash”.
Dr Boyle added: “We are worried about staff burnout, staff are tired, they have worked really hard over the summer, they have put up with a lot of disruption.
“This time people are frustrated, this is now an entirely preventable disease, we know what we did in spring made a lot of this go away. There’s also now a vaccine.
“The idea that we are dealing with something that can’t be controlled doesn’t wash, this is a preventable disease and we need to be preventing it.”
Dr Boyle said washing hands, wearing face coverings and keeping your distance from others stops the spread of the infection, and he also thanked people for not partying on New Year’s Eve.
He added: “There are a lot of things we could be doing as a society to stop this spreading and a lot of it is simple stuff around washing your hands, keeping your distance, wearing a face covering.
“In the NHS we need to thank all those people who gave up their New Year’s Eve parties to stay at home, which was the vast majority.”
The deployment of the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will begin on Monday, almost a month after the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, but second doses of either will now take place within 12 weeks rather than 21 days as initially planned.
More than a million people have now received their first coronavirus vaccination, but a joint statement from England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the public will “understand” and “thank” them for the plan to give first jabs as a priority, delaying the follow-up vaccination for others.
Professor David Salisbury, a former director of immunisation at the Department of Health, said he backs the revised Covid-19 vaccine strategy.
The associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course I accept it is inconvenient and isn’t helpful to have to change appointments and explain to people (about the delay in receiving a second jab), but the reason for doing this is to save lives.
“We know how many have been vaccinated, and across the whole country it isn’t all that many, but every time we give a second dose right now, we are holding that back from someone who is likely, if they get coronavirus, to die, and much more likely to die than somebody who has already had a single dose.”
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