Mail Online: UK, Sunday, May 17, 2020 – Michael Gove today today guaranteed teachers and pupils will be safe when schools are reopened before swiftly backtracking as he said ‘you can never eliminate risk’.
The Government is locked in a furious row with councils and teaching unions over its plans to begin the phased reopening of primary schools in England from June 1 as the coronavirus lockdown is eased.
Some teaching unions are blocking the move and have said they will only budge once they are persuaded it is totally safe for teachers and children to go back to the classroom. But others have said they will recommend reopening after talks with Government experts.
Meanwhile, a number of local authorities have said they will not comply with Boris Johnson’s lockdown strategy and will exercise caution when it comes to reopening schools.
Mr Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, today tried to assuage concerns as he insisted it will be safe for teachers and students before then performing a screeching U-turn and admitting there will be at least some level of risk.
It came as the Government saw its approval rating take a sharp dip in the week after the Prime Minister set out his strategy for lifting lockdown measures.
A new Opinium survey showed that disapproval for the PM’s response to the outbreak is now higher than approval for the very first time.
Some 39 percent of the nation are supportive of the Government’s handling of the crisis, down nine points on the 48 percent recorded last week, while disapproval rose from 36 percent to 42 percent.
Boris Johnson has told Tory MPs he wants to return to “near-normality” in July as he hails British ‘good sense’ over the lockdown and announces £93million to bring forward the opening of a research centre to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.
Speaking to 100 of his colleagues via video link, the Prime Minister said he would take ‘grandmother steps’ to ease the rules, but only if Britons comply with the current lockdown measures. He also confirmed that Commons discussions will resume on June 2.
It comes as Mr Johnson declares British people’s ‘fortitude’ will enable them to survive the Covid-19 crisis and regain ‘the freedoms they hold dear’.
He says that the epidemic has brought out ‘the best in humanity’ and that the public’s ‘perseverance’ and ‘good common sense’ will enable the country to ‘inch forwards’ out of lockdown and towards ‘much-missed normality’.
Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday, Mr Johnson also announces that an Oxfordshire research centre will be opening a year ahead of schedule in an attempt to fast-track a vaccine against the coronavirus.
An MP listening in on the video call told The Sun: ‘Boris told us he is determined that the country should be as close to normality again before the end of July.
“But he was clear that it all depends on the country meeting the conditions that have been set for tackling the virus.
“Most importantly that means bringing down the infection rate – and that can only be achieved if we continue to obey the rules on social distancing to help stop it spreading.”
Mr Johnson’s exclusive article will be seen as an attempt to draw a line under the chaotic days in Westminster which followed his televised address to the nation last Sunday, which left many people confused about the rules about meeting friends and family.
The Prime Minister clarifies today: “You can now spend as much time as you like outdoors, for example sitting and enjoying the fresh air, picnicking, or sunbathing. You can meet one other person from a different household outdoors, provided you maintain social distancing.”
The Government’s schools plan will see reception, year one and year six pupils return in June with other year groups returning later.
Secondary schools are not due to reopen before the summer holidays but pupils in year 10 and year 12 will be offered time with teachers ahead of them entering their exam year.
Mr Gove was asked this morning during an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show if teachers should be safe when returning to work.
He replied: “Yes, teachers will be safe in schools. The programme that has been outlined is a staged and careful return with children in reception, year one and year six of primary coming back to school we hope in the week beginning June 1.
“It is the case that some of the best leaders in current education have said that it is absolutely safe for children to return, absolutely safe for teachers and other staff to return as well.”
Asked if he could guarantee that teachers will be safe, he said: “Yes. It is the case, as I say, I talked to the chief scientific adviser yesterday for the government Patrick Vallance and running through the figures, the R number, the rate of infection in the community overall, we are confident that children and teachers will be safe.”
However, when asked directly if he could guarantee that no returning teacher will catch coronavirus at school, Mr Gove said: ‘The only way ever to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely.
“There is always, always, always in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching the coronavirus.”
He continued: “The key thing is that we can make these workplaces safe. You can never eliminate risk but as we know, as we have heard, it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak and if for any reason there are risks then we can take steps to mitigate them.”
Hartlepool Council has now joined Liverpool in saying its schools will remain shut on June 1 as local coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Hartlepool said in a statement: “Given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise, Hartlepool Borough Council has been working with schools and we have agreed they will not reopen on Monday, June 1.”
Data from countries which have reopened schools has been ‘very reassuring’ but governments need to consider what checks are needed to avoid a spread of Covid-19, a senior global health official has said.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), said decisions on whether to allow schools to open are often being done at a community or city level, based on factors such as whether the virus is under control.
She also told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show she believes that ‘society has to restart’ but that there will be a new normal.
Asked about the reopening of schools, and evidence from countries that have done so, Dr Swaminathan said: ‘Overall, the data has been very reassuring, though of course it’s only a few countries that have done that.
“The guidance that has been put out by WHO clearly lays out the criteria you would use when you consider whether to reopen a school or not.”
Dr Swaminathan said this is based on factors such as the progress of the disease – whether it is on the rise or under control and going down, as well as whether there has been time to put measures into place such as rearranging classrooms and ensuring there are handwashing facilities.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has voiced her “despair” at the continued ‘squabbling’ between ministers and unions which she said is impacting on children’s life chances.
“My worry within all that is that the needs of children and the best interests of children are disappearing from view,” she told the BBC.
It came as Mr Johnson was warned he risks fracturing national unity if he fails to listen to regional concerns about the easing of lockdown.
There is also disquiet over the decision to replace the ‘stay at home’ slogan with the ‘stay alert’ message with more than half people believing the latter is not clear.