Pupils in areas currently under local lockdowns will return to school in September, the schools minister has insisted.
Nick Gibb told the Today programme this morning that all children will be returning to school in September “including in those areas that are currently subject to a local lockdown”.
But he admitted the government can’t “decree” that opening schools be prioritised over other preventative measures in “every single case”, and that local lockdowns would continue to be managed on a case-by-case basis.
The recent decision by the government to reimpose lockdown restrictions on Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire has prompted questions about whether ministers should continue with their aim to have all pupils return in September.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, said earlier today that in the event of further lockdowns, education should be prioritised, with schools “last to close”.
Asked whether other restrictive measures should be considered before further school closures, Gibb said the government’s response would be “more nuanced”.
“It does have to depend on the facts of the case, and that’s why the local director of public health will be responsible for the response to that spike.”
He added: “What I’m saying is that all children will be returning to school in September, including in those areas that are currently subject to a local lockdown – Manchester, Greater Manchester, Leicester and so on – because it is important children are back in school.”
However, Gibb admitted the government “can’t decree this for every single case, and it will depend on the circumstances of a local increase in the infection rate”.
“But we want all children back in school. We agree with Anne Longfield that this is important for young people to resume their education.”
The minister also defended the government’s decision not to require older pupils to wear masks in school, despite the fact children over 11 have to wear face coverings on public transport and in shops.
It comes after Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist, told the same programme that the return of older pupils to secondary schools and colleges “poses a real risk of amplification of transmission”.
The scientist, who resigned from the government’s advisory SAGE committee earlier this year, said the evidence was “still not certain” on transmission by teenagers, but “it looks like older teenagers can transmit just as well as adults”.
Asked why pupils did not need to wear face coverings in schools, Gibb said government was “led by the science”, which he said was different for schools than for other locations.
“Within a school, of course, you’re not with people who you don’t meet normally. You see the same children every day, so there are different circumstances. When you are on public transport, for example, where you’re encountering people you’ve not come across or met before, that’s why you have different rules.”
Gibb was also played interviews with parents concerned about the return of pupils, who complained of uncertainty. But the minister claimed that “increasingly parents are reassured that it is safe for their children to return to school”.
He said schools were “taking huge measures to ensure we minimise the risk of any spread of the virus within the school environment”, including whole class bubbles in primary schools and whole-year-group bubbles in secondaries.
“There’s also the extra hygiene and cleaning and hand sanitisers and so on, and staggered lunch and play times to make sure there’s a minimum interaction between pupils.”