Michael Gove today admitted that there was no way of being certain teachers and children will not catch coronavirus if they return to the classroom – just moments after claiming he could “guarantee” schools are safe.
The cabinet minister urged councils, teaching unions and doctors to “think again” about opposition to reopening primary school classrooms in England from 1 June, as proposed by the government, telling them that if they really care about children they should look to their responsibilities.
Asked on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show whether he could “guarantee” that teachers going back to school will be safe, Mr Gove said firmly: “Yes.”
But moments later, he admitted that an element of risk would remain, telling the programme: “The only way ever to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely. There’s always, always, always in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching the coronavirus.
“The key thing is that we can make these workplaces safe. You can never eliminate risk, but as we know, it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak and if, for any reason, there are risks we can take steps to mitigate them.”
He added: “We can’t have a situation where we keep our economy, our schools and our public services continually closed down, because the health consequences of doing so would be malign as well.
“None of us can guarantee that anyone will be entirely free [from risk] unless effectively they are perpetually imprisoned in their own home.”
Labour is pressing the government to publish the scientific evidence underpinning the proposal to reopen schools, and to keep talking to unions, teachers and councils to ensure parents can be confident their children will be safe if they return.
Rachel Reeves, shadow Cabinet Office minister, told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “The government have got a lot more work to do to give that confidence that it will be safe to send children back in two weeks’ time.
“The government have got two weeks to get this right. They haven’t approached this in the right way so far.”
Teachers’ unions have called for more answers from the government after meetings with scientific advisers and ministers on Friday. And they have received backing for their cautious approach from the British Medical Association, while local authorities including Liverpool and Hartlepool have said they will not reopen schools on 1 June unless they are absolutely confident it is safe to do so.
Asked for his advice to those opposing a return to classrooms next month, Mr Gove said: “I respectfully ask them to think again, to broaden the range of the scientific advice that they look at.
“I know the BMA has the best interests of its members at heart, but actually the clear scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen accompanied by social distancing.”
The former education secretary added: “Children only have one chance at education. Over the past decade we have made significant strides in closing the gap between the richest and poorest in our schools. This lockdown has put that backwards.
“If you really care about children, you will want them to be in school, you will want them to be learning, you will want them to have opportunities. Look to your responsibilities.”
Ms Reeves said that parents and teachers’ anxieties would be “a lot less” if the government had got in place a programme for widespread coronavirus testing, followed by tracing of contacts of those infected and isolation of those who test positive.
Mr Gove announced today that more than 17,000 of the government’s planned army of 18,000 contact tracers have now been recruited and said the authorities were “on course” to begin the programme by the end of this month.
Ms Reeves said: “Government need to put in place some of the measures to improve confidence and that includes the test, trace and isolate strategy. The government abandoned that back in the middle of March. That was a mistake.”
She added: “We want to see our children in the classroom, but to do that in a safe way two things need to happen. First of all, the government needs to work with parents, teachers and their unions to make sure that the new plans have the confidence of everybody so that parents feel confident to send their children to school.
“But also we need more transparency from government. The prime minister said last Sunday that all the decisions that are going to be made about easing lockdown will be based on the science and here we are, a week later, and those details have not been published and that is a cause for concern and adds to the anxiety amongst teachers and teaching staff and parents about the safety.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We welcome the fact that Michael Gove ... acknowledged unions have proper concerns for the health and safety of school staff, children and their families.
“We stand ready to engage this week, with the publication of Sage’s advice and underlying modelling and data and with some understanding of how the government intends to assess the progress on its five tests.
“We would like to understand [deputy chief medical officer] Jenny Harries’s statement that the case rate is halving every fortnight and how the government intends to build on the model of wider school opening in Denmark. For our part we want to see if the government will engage with our own five tests – which are sensible and moderate and endorsed by the British Medical Association.”
The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, suggested the timetable for schools reopening should vary according to the R value – recording the average number of people infected by each coronavirus patient – in different regions of England.
The former Labour MP warned that the prime minister could fracture national unity unless he listens to concerns that the lifting of lockdown measures is coming too quickly for the north.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast he said: “People do not have the R information at the moment. They can get it, but it’s not formally published by the government.
“There’s a very different picture in the north, particularly in the northeast, where the R is the highest, so I can understand concerns.
“Let’s get back around the table, look at the evidence and have some flexibility in terms of how [children] return to school because it will be different for different places.”
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