The government will make announcements on reopening schools “in the next few days”, the schools minister has said.
However, Nick Gibb gave no indication of whether the upcoming announcements would include a firm date for schools to reopen, or details of any phased approach the government may take.
We want to give two weeks’ notice so that parents can make arrangements for the care of their children, and we will be making announcements in the next few days
He also ducked repeated questions about what rate of hospitalisations, mortality, vaccination progress and spread of new variants would need to be seen across the country before schools can be reopened.
Ministers have come under increasing pressure to reveal their plan for lifting restrictions on attendance implemented on January 5. Schools have been closed to all but the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers for three weeks.
Answering an urgent question on the matter from Labour today, Gibb repeated a pledge made by his boss Gavin Williamson last week to provide two weeks’ notice of reopenings to allow schools to prepare.
But he remained tight-lipped on what approach the government would take, with staggered returns and rota systems being touted again as potential options.
During the debate, Gibb acknowledged that both school staff and families “need time to prepare for reopening”, which was “why the secretary of state made it clear last week that we will give two weeks’ notice to schools, colleges and universities so that they can prepare for a return to face-to-face education”.
“We want to give two weeks’ notice so that parents can make arrangements for the care of their children, and we will be making announcements in the next few days.”
Gibb insisted that any decision to reopen schools would be based on four metrics – hospitalisation rates, mortality rates, the progress of the vaccination programme and the “challenge of the new variant”.
“Ultimately it was the pressure on the NHS that caused us to move into a national lockdown, and the government is monitoring NHS capacity carefully as it reviews whether easing lockdown might be possible,” he added.
However, he would not say what level each of those metrics must reach before schools reopen.
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, criticised the government for failing to come up with a “credible plan”.
“The schools minister mentioned some metrics, but was was vague about the required performance against them. Can he give us some more clarity? Will schools only return if the R is below 1?”
Green also asked in what order pupils would return, whether exam students, primary children or pupils in certain regions would be prioritised first, and whether a “credible testing plan” would be in place.
But Gibb claimed there were “clear criteria” for emerging from the lockdown, referring to the metrics he mentioned earlier.
“We’ve always been clear that schools will be the last to close and the first to open as we emerge from the national lockdown.”