Speaking after a series of leading education unions called for the immediate return of remote teaching for a brief period amid fears over the prevalence of the new Covid-19 strain, the prime minister claimed: “There is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe”.
But he failed to guarantee all schools, including secondaries, would reopen on 18 January as planned, stressing that the government would “continue to assess” the impact of tier 4 and tier 3 restrictions.
Mr Johnson’s comments came after the education secretary Gavin Williamson was forced into a U-turn on Friday evening, ordering all primary schools in London and areas of the south-east not to resume face-to-face teaching on Monday, in a move he described as a “last resort”.
Across the rest of the country, the vast majority of primary schools will return tomorrow while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on 11 January and others a week later.
Pressed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme whether parents should their children back to the classrooms on Monday, Mr Johnson rejected the unions’ calls over the weekend and replied: "Yes, absolutely they should in areas where schools are open.
"What we are doing, clearly, is grappling with a new variant of coronavirus which is surging particularly in London and the south east. And that is why we have had to take exceptional measures."
According to minutes published by the the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 22 December, experts said it was “highly unlikely” that measures similar the restrictions imposed in November, in which schools remained open, would be “sufficient” to maintain the R rate of transmission below 1.
The scientists added: “R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.”
On Saturday, the National Association of Headteachers also said it was launching legal action against the Department for Education (DfE) over the the scientific advice it is drawing on to resume teaching and testing for the virus in schools.
But Mr Johnson told the BBC: “"Schools are safe. It is very, very important to stress that.The risk to kids, to young people is really very, very small indeed.The risk to staff is very small.
He added: “I would advise all parents thinking about want to do, look at where your area is, overwhelmingly you'll be in a part of the country where primary schools tomorrow will be open."
"I understand people's frustrations, I understand people's anxieties but there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe and that education is a priority."
Confirmed cases of Covid-19 were higher than 50,000 for the fifth consecutive day when UK figures released on Saturday showed a record-high of 57,725 lab-confirmed cases and further 445 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
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