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Schools must close to make second lockdown work, northern leaders tell Boris Johnson

Scientists also warn move increasingly likely – but would have been avoided if prime minister had not dithered

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 01 November 2020 19:52 GMT
Michael Gove confronted with evidence of soaring infections among school pupils

Northern leaders say schools must close if the lockdown is to be successful, as scientists warned Boris Johnson the move is increasingly likely.

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the metro-mayors in Greater Manchester and Merseyside respectively, broke with the political consensus, saying keeping pupils at home was the only way to “get a grip of the virus”.

The call came as a member of the Sage advisory group of scientists, said school closures would definitely have been avoided if the prime minister had not dithered and delayed the second lockdown.

“The transmission would not be at today’s level and it would have been possible to certainly have kept schools open – whereas I think that is a question now,” warned Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.

The latest ONS survey of infections found that “older teenagers and young adults continue to have the highest positivity rates, while rates appear to be steeply increasing among secondary schoolchildren”.

Both the government and Labour are insisting schools must remain open, even at the price of extending the four-week lockdown beyond 2 December if necessary.

But Mr Burnham and Mr Rotheram, hosting a press conference, said they feared their cities would “simply be put back in tier 3” at the end of the four weeks, without a rethink.

“I would suggest a period of two weeks’ closure towards the second half of November so that schools have time to prepare online learning,” Mr Burnham said.

“That would create the conditions for the biggest drop in cases that we could achieve and it would then create the conditions for some kind of Christmas for more families, because they need it right now.”

Mr Rotheram said the government had told them that 25 per cent of infections were passed around in education settings – a proportion equal to hospitality.

Universities should switch to full online learning, Mr Burnham said, urging MPs to step into the battle over education by staging a debate. 

Both Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist, and Professor Calum Semple, another Sage member, have warned school closures may be needed to tame Covid-19.

But when Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister and Mr Johnson’s effective deputy, was asked if he was “absolutely committed to keeping schools open whatever happens”, he replied: “Yes.”

He added: “All the evidence suggests that schools are not a centre of infection and that schools are safe” – standing by the view even when confronted with the ONS data.

The issue risks fresh embarrassment for the prime minister, because an earlier lockdown – as proposed by Sage and backed by Labour – would have coincided with the half-term holidays.

Keir Starmer said it would be better to keep schools open, even if the lockdown had to remain beyond 2 December, adding: “I say keep schools open and manage the risk.”

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