Boris Johnson has said “there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” in areas where they are open – as he warned of tighter restrictions in the coming weeks.
As pressure mounted on the prime minister to keep all of England’s schools closed when the new term starts, Mr Johnson insisted education was a priority and parents in areas where primary schools are open should send children in tomorrow.
“There is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe, and that education is a priority,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
“The benefits of education are so huge, overwhelmingly we want to keep our young people in education.”
The PM also warned of possible tougher restrictions ahead: “It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that may be tougher. I’m fully reconciled to that. I think the whole country is fully reconciled to that.”
COVID-19 cases across the UK are at record levels and are increasing as a new, more transmissible variant that is affecting more children than before, spreads.
Most primary schools in England are scheduled to open on Monday, followed by a staggered start for secondary schools a week later, with GCSE and A-level pupils set to return first.
Some primaries in areas where the new variant is more prevalent will not open on Monday. They are in London and parts of the South East, including 11 areas of Essex, nine areas of Kent, four areas of Hertfordshire, two areas of East Sussex and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.
However, the National Education Union (NEU) has said all primary schools should remain closed for at least two weeks following the Christmas break as the new variant affects children more than the virus did before.
Kevin Courtney, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said its members have “a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities and more generally”.
But, giving advice to parents, Mr Johnson said: “Look at where your area is, overwhelmingly you’ll be in a part of the country where primary schools tomorrow will be open.”
In Brighton and Hove, the local council – against government guidance – has advised schools to implement remote learning until the 18 January, arguing its COVID-19 infection rate is now 500% higher than it was at the beginning of December.
Mr Johnson would not confirm whether secondary schools and primary schools that are closed would open on 18 January.
“Well, obviously, we’re going to continue to assess the impact of the Tier 4 measures, the Tier 3 measures,” he said.
He added that the new variant means “there are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider”.
“I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be, but I’m sure that all our viewers and our listeners will understand what the sort of things… clearly school closures, which we had to do in March is one of those things,” Mr Johnson added.