There have been calls to shut all schools across the country as Covid is spreading and putting huge pressure on the NHS.
All schools in England should remain closed for two weeks following the Christmas break to reduce the spread of Covid-19, a leading teaching union has said.
The call from the National Education Union (NEU) comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed on Friday that all London primary schools will remain shut next week.
The union’s joint general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said the decision should be extended to all schools.
Dr Bousted told BBC Breakfast: “We know that pupils now can transmit the virus through their homes, through to their families and into the community, they’re the most effective transmitter of the virus.
“You combine that with the new variant being up to 70% more infective than the previous Covid virus which was very infective, then it’s clear we have to do something to break the chain of rising levels of infection in our community.”
She added: “The danger is that by opening schools as levels of infection are rising so high and are already so high amongst pupils, then we’re not going to break that chain and our NHS will become overwhelmed so we said all schools should be closed for the first two weeks.
“We regret to have to say that, we don’t want to have to say the schools will close but our fear is if we don’t do something now, they’re going to have to be closed for a much longer period later on this month.”
Mr Williamson had said the decision to close all London primary schools was a “last resort”.
Stuart Fegan, GMB National Officer said: “Gavin Williamson is at sixes and sevens over the re-opening of schools. His shambolic approach is a recipe for chaos and danger. It’s causing huge stress.
“As infection rates rise, we need a consistent approach, not a postcode lottery. The Education Secretary now needs to apply some common sense, make a full U-turn, and delay re-opening all schools in England until proper safeguards are in place.
“No one wants to disrupt any child’s learning but action is needed to protect people and make schools safe. This must include ensuring priority vaccination of all support staff in schools – key workers who are all-too-often forgotten.”
From January 4, London primary schools will be required to provide remote learning for two weeks to all children except vulnerable children and those of key workers, who will be permitted to continue to attend.
Under the Government’s initial plan, secondary schools and colleges were set to be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of January, while primary schools within 50 local authorities in London and the south of England were also told to keep their doors shut until January 18.
But while the move was welcomed as the “right decision”, the Government was also accused of making another U-turn just days after it told some schools to reopen for the new term.
Dr Bousted criticised the Government for an “inability to even read the data”, adding: “It seems to me just to be inexplicable that the Government is getting this so badly wrong.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the Government’s decision had caused “huge stress” for pupils, families and staff.
The row comes after figures showed a further 53,285 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Friday, with another 613 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
This was the fourth day in a row daily cases have been above 50,000, with a new record high of 55,892 cases reported on New Year’s Eve – the highest since mass testing began in late May.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the current case figures are “fairly mild” compared to what is expected in a week’s time and that healthcare workers are “really worried” about the coming months, with infection levels putting hospitals under increasing pressure.
He told the BBC: “All hospitals that haven’t had the big pressures that they’ve had in the South East, and London and South Wales, should expect that it’s going to come their way.
“This new variant is definitely more infectious and is spreading across the whole of the country. It seems very likely that we are going to see more and more cases, wherever people work in the UK, and we need to be prepared for that.”
One nurse described the situation in hospitals as “unbearable”.
The nurse, who works at the Whittington Hospital in north London, described patients being left in corridors, some spending up to three hours in ambulances because of a lack of beds and one being left without oxygen when their cylinder ran out.