With the UK repeatedly racking up record numbers of Covid-19 cases, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put himself at odds with scientific advisers and trade unions by insisting that schools are safe and should reopen.
Johnson advised parents to send their children to school when they reopen following the Christmas holidays, declaring that education is a priority. “Schools are safe. It is very, very important to stress that. The risk to kids, to young people is really very, very small indeed. The risk to staff is very small,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme on Sunday.
The remarks are at odds with comments from the scientists advising the government on the coronavirus outbreak, who said it was “highly unlikely” that measures similar to the restrictions imposed in November, when schools remained open, would be “sufficient” to maintain an R rate of transmission below 1.
On #marr@BorisJohnson just said schools are safe. The science says otherwise. #MakeSchoolsSafe to #ProtectCommunitiespic.twitter.com/h6hcsnHgHk
“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools,” the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said on December 22.
Johnson’s comments come after several education unions called for the immediate return of remote learning due to fears of widespread Covid-19 infections, and they unleashed a deluge of political blowback.
Boris Johnson: “Schools are safe.”Everyone else: pic.twitter.com/7VDCgrB7ZT
Opposition parties and unions were quick to seize on the remarks, accusing Johnson of ignoring his scientific advisers and putting lives at risk.
Labour MP Richard Burgon took to Twitter to vent his anger, tweeting: “[Johnson’s] government is already responsible for the unnecessary deaths of 10,000s of people. It can’t be trusted.”
Boris Johnson says “schools are safe”. But the Government’s scientists say they should be shut to tackle the virus.His government is already responsible for the unnecessary deaths of 10,000s of people. It can’t be trusted. Teachers can.I back the National Education Union.
The prime minister’s remarks clearly agitated many across the UK as the hashtags ‘#Resign’, ‘#SchoolClosures’ and ‘#BorisHasFailedTheUK’ shot to the top of the country’s Twitter trending charts.
Thank God that @borisjohnson has said schools are perfectly safe. I was beginning to have my doubts. Clearly I didn’t pick up #coronavirus from someone asymptomatic at school when I’d not been out. Nor did I spend a week in a Covid ward. #resign#BorisTheLiar#BorisJohnson#marr
Johnson: we follow the scienceScientists: schools aren’t safeJohnson: not a doubt in my mind that schools are safe. Except London, where the important people are obviouslyWe’re led by a fucking idiot, incapable of listening to reason #borishasfailedtheuk#COVIDIOT#schoolspic.twitter.com/0aHcuLeTLc
The majority of Britain’s primary schools are set to return on Monday while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis from 11 January. On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to order all primary schools in London and parts of the south-east to remain closed on Monday in a u-turn he described as a “last resort.”
Britain recorded a record-breaking 57,725 new cases of Covid-19 on Saturday, and more than 74,000 deaths have been attributed to the disease so far during the pandemic.
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