Education Secretary refuses to rule out school closures in January

Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi refuses to rule out school closures in January but says he will do ‘everything in my power’ to keep classrooms open as government battles spread of Omicron

  • Education secretary Nadim Zahawi refused to rule out firebreak school closures
  • Mr Zahawi said Government was working to ensure schools stayed open safely
  • He urged all those who are eligible to get booster jab as Omicron cases increase

The education secretary Nadim Zahawi (pictured arriving at Broadcasting House this morning) has refused to rule out school closures in the new year

The education secretary has refused to rule out school closures in the new year as the Government continues to battle the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Nadim Zahawi said this morning the Government was still learning about the variant and that it was trying to ensure schools were protected but offered no guarantee schools would still be open in the New Year.  

Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr if he could make the promise that schools won’t close, he said: ‘We are absolutely working to make sure that all schools are open, that they’re protected.

‘I will do everything in my power. We are still learning about this variant. We know that a booster works.

‘Get boosted, protect yourself, protect your community and let’s get through this and transition this from pandemic to endemic.’

An Omicron Covid-19 case was reported in a primary school for the first time last week.

All year five students, aged nine or ten, at Manor Community Primary School in Kent, were advised to stay home and get tested.

Unlike with other variants, those who come into close contact with a person who has been infected with Omicron must self-isolate for 10 days.

Pupils’ parents received an email informing them of the situation and a mobile testing unit was dispatched to the school in Keary Road on Friday.

Mr Zahawi said the Government is working hard to ensure children are safe from Covid-19 at school. Pictured: Year eight pupils wear face masks as a precaution against Covid transmission

The first case of Omicron variant was detected at a school last week. Pictured: children wearing masks at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Yorkshire earlier this year

As a precaution, the UK Health Security Agency is carrying out testing on some pupils in key stage two groups. 

The news came days after another Omicron case was confirmed at nearby Northfleet Technology College.

Health experts fear the Omicron variant could be more contagious than other strains, although it is understood the vaccine remains effective at preventing severe symptoms and hospitalisation in most cases. 

The government has tightened Covid rules from Monday 13 December, with those who can being advised to work from home while face masks have been made mandatory in most public indoor places once again.

Fearing a rise in Omicron infections, new coronavirus restrictions have come into force around the country as part of the government’s Plan B to tackle the virus over the winter period.

Late last month, some schools began imposing their own circuit breaker closures as the number of Covid cases continued to rise across the country, citing outbreaks of Covid and a lack of staff. 

Darwen Aldridge Enterprise Studio, a secondary school which teaches pupils aged 13 to 19, said that it was shuttering its doors until at least due to teachers being off with Covid.

And Finlay Community Primary School in Gloucestershire said it was partially closing – with pupils in reception moving to online learning – due to ‘an increase in Covid-19 cases’ and ‘low staffing levels’. 

Other schools cancelled nativities and Christmas festivities amidst growing concern over the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Meanwhile, Mr Zahawi said the Government does not have plans ‘at the moment’ to vaccinate primary school-aged children.

He said vaccination experts were still reviewing the evidence on what level of protection a coronavirus jab would give those aged under 12, and that a decision would await their verdict.

It comes after the Sunday Times reported that healthcare staff have been told to start preparing for the mass vaccination of primary school children in anticipation of approval by regulators, with children as young as five to be jabbed. 

Mr Zahawi, asked whether there were plans to vaccinate primary school children, told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: ‘There is no plan at the moment to vaccinate primary school children for the reason that the Joint Committee on Vaccination (and Immunisation, JCVI) is still looking at the evidence as to what level of protection it would offer.’

With previous variants of coronavirus, NHS advice was that Covid was ‘usually mild’ in most children, but that it could make some children unwell.

It was announced in September that secondary school children aged 12-15 would be eligible to receive a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine following advice from the UK’s four chief medical officers.

Further advice from the JCVI last month recommended that a second dose be given to those in the same age bracket.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced he would be triggering Plan B, in a bid to buy the UK time in the fight against the Omicron variant of the virus.

Tories have reacted with dismay to the proposals, with tens of backbenchers pledging to vote down plans for vaccine passports to be made mandatory for large venues, compulsory mask-wearing in most public indoor settings, as well as guidance for employees to work from home where they can.

Despite the prospect of a Tory backbench revolt, Plan B is expected to become law as Sir Keir told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show he will vote with the Government.

The Labour leader said his party will not be doing so to support the Prime Minister but the NHS.

He said: ‘If you look at the science in relation to Omicron, the new variant, there is a real concern that we could be in a situation where the number of cases is doubling in a shorter period of two days.

‘Now, I understand people say that that hasn’t led to higher hospitalisations and deaths yet, but the sheer volume of cases is very, very worrying.’

He added: ‘So, I’m not supporting the Prime Minister on Tuesday, I’m supporting our NHS, and I’m supporting the public in relation to this pandemic.’ 

Among those who have voiced concerns about the scaling-up of restrictions are former Cabinet ministers David Davis, Esther McVey, Dr Liam Fox, Greg Clark and former Brexit minister Steve Baker. 

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