Boris Johnson ‘would close pubs before schools’ in local Covid-19 lockdown

Prime minister says it is a ‘national priority’ and ‘moral duty’ to get all pupils back into classrooms

Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible,’ the prime minister has said. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson has spoken of “a moral duty” to get all children back in class amid indications he would force pubs, restaurants and shops to close ahead of schools in the event of severe coronavirus flare-ups.

The prime minister is understood to favour only closing schools as the last resort after scientific advisers warned more restrictions may be needed to reopen classrooms in England next month.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, had said the reopening of schools “should be prioritised”, insisting they must be first to reopen and last to close during any reintroduction of restrictions.

But the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said this week the government cannot “decree” that classroom education would be prioritised, instead saying decisions would be made by local health chiefs.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, however, Johnson said it is the “national priority” to get all pupils back into classrooms in September after months without in-person education.

“This pandemic isn’t over, and the last thing any of us can afford to do is become complacent,” he wrote. “But now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so.”

He warned of the “spiralling economic costs” of parents and carers being unable to work, adding: “Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.”

Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has warned the nation has “probably reached near the limit or the limits” of what can be done to reopen society safely.

And Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the decision to impose the lockdown, suggested ministers would need to “row back on the relaxation of restrictions” to allow a full-time return to schools while keeping the virus under control.

On Wednesday, Gibb said a “more nuanced response” would be taken when asked about Longfield’s call for schools to be prioritised, as she criticised ministers for treating children “as an afterthought” during the crisis.

He told the BBC all children would be returning next month including in areas hit by local lockdowns, which currently includes Preston, Greater Manchester, Leicester and parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

“But you can’t decree this for every single case and it will depend on the circumstances of a local increase in the infection rate, and that is why it is being led by the director of public health in localities. But we want all children back in school,” he added.

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