Government to scrap power to force school closures

Ministers publish Covid autumn and winter plan

Ministers publish Covid autumn and winter plan

Covid vaccine

The government is to scrap its powers to order school closures, but looks set to keep hold of its power to force them to stay open.

Ministers have published their autumn and winter Covid plan, including details of which powers from the Coronavirus Act 2020 will be scrapped.

According to the plan, the government intends to recommend to Parliament that the section of the act which allows ministers to “direct the temporary closure of educational institutions and providers” be scrapped.

However, there is another section of the act which allows ministers to give directions “requiring the provision, or continuing provision, of education, training and childcare”.

Only “parts of” this section will be scrapped, including an element allowing the education secretary to modify the duty on councils to secure SEND provision in a young person’s education, health and care plan.

Remaining powers to be reviewed next spring

However, the part giving ministers the right to force schools to stay open is not mentioned. The government said all remaining temporary powers are due to expire on March 24, and that the legislation would be reviewed in the spring.

The power to force schools to stay open was controversially used last December when ministers ordered the London Borough of Greenwich to rescind its request for schools to move to remote learning in the final week of term.

The provision was also used more recently, as ministers reintroduced a temporary requirement for schools to provide remote education for those pupils who have to stay away.

Unveiling the government’s autumn and winter Covid plan, Javid told MPs that the government would be “removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response”.

“This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act. So for example, those powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the government’s response to the pandemic.”

Secondary school testing to continue until ‘for the rest of this term’

The government’s plan has also confirmed that asymptomatic testing of secondary school pupils will continue beyond the end of September, when it was due to be reviewed.

Ministers now expect that testing will continue “for the rest of this term”, and will be a “valuable tool in minimising the overall disruption to education”.

Vaccines to be rolled out to teenagers from next week

The government has also confirmed that 12 to 15-year-olds will be offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine through their schools.

The vaccine will be offered to teenagers via school immunisation teams from next week, and the government said it would “consult the Royal Colleges and other professional groups on how best to present the risk-benefit decisions about vaccination in a way that is accessible to children and young people as well as their parents”.

Ministers have also extended the right to a free flu vaccination to secondary school children this year. Primary pupils were already eligible.

In an email to heads, the Department for Education said healthy school-aged children would “primarily receive their Covid-19 vaccination in their school”, with “alternative provision for those who are home schooled”.

Some children will be vaccinated in secure services or specialist mental health settings.

Like all school-based vaccination programmes, the vaccine “will be administered by healthcare staff with appropriate qualifications who are trained in the vaccination of children and young people”.

Return to school ‘likely’ to increase case numbers

The government’s plan document also acknowledged that the return of students to schools and universities and workers to workplaces this month was “likely to put further upward
pressure on case numbers”.

“The latest data from Scotland suggests that, in addition to increased infections following the lifting of most restrictions, there has also been an impact from the return to schools and workplaces.”

The plan also stipulates that the proposals constitute the government’s “plan A”.

However, it acknowledged there were a “number of variables”, including “how widely social contact returns to pre-pandemic levels as schools return and offices reopen”, and whether a new variant emerges which “fundamentally changes the government’s assessment of the risks”.

The document also refers to a “plan B”, which would prioritise measures “which can help control transmission of the virus while seeking to minimise economic and social impacts”, and would only be enacted “if the data suggests further measures are necessary to protect the NHS”.

This includes legally mandating face coverings in “certain settings”, although the plan does not stipulate which settings would be included.

The government “would also consider asking people once again to work from home if
they can, for a limited period”.

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