Health

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson vows to ‘move heaven and earth’ to avoid shutting schools again

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson has warned there will be a ‘significant surge’ in Covid cases this winter.

The epidemiologist, whose modelling was instrumental in putting the country into the initial shutdown last spring, said some restrictions might need to be rolled back.

He claimed that if daily cases soar beyond 100,000 to 150,000 there will be ‘significant demands on the health system’.

It comes amid fears of a sharp rise in infections now schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have started to go back after the summer break.

Cases skyrocketed in Scotland when classes resumed in mid-August.

Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson today vowed to ‘move heaven and earth’ to avoid shutting schools again this winter.

The Education Secretary said he was ‘absolutely’ certain pupils will sit exams as normal this year after the fiasco caused by the pandemic this summer and last. 

But he admitted face masks and other restrictive measures could make a comeback if infection rates start to spiral.

Mr Williamson even refused to rule out classes taking place outside but claimed it was ‘not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of’.  

Gavin Williamson today vowed to 'move heaven and earth' to avoid shutting schools again amid fears of a big bang in cases now that classes are going back after the summer break

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson (left) has warned there will be a ‘significant surge’ in Covid cases this winter. Gavin Williamson (right) today vowed to ‘move heaven and earth’ to avoid shutting schools again amid fears of a big bang in cases now that classes are going back after the summer break

Latest estimates from a symptom-tracking app suggested under-18s had the second highest number of Covid cases in the country (blue line). Only 18 to 35-year-olds had a higher number of Covid cases (orange line). That is despite schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only starting to go back this week. The data is from the ZOE Covid Symptom Study

Latest estimates from a symptom-tracking app suggested under-18s had the second highest number of Covid cases in the country (blue line). Only 18 to 35-year-olds had a higher number of Covid cases (orange line). That is despite schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only starting to go back this week. The data is from the ZOE Covid Symptom Study

Latest Public Health England data showed Covid cases are rising fastest among 10 to 19-year-olds (grey line) and 20 to 29-year-olds (green line). Approving Covid vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds would likely help curb the spread of the virus in the age group, scientists in favour of the move claim

Latest Public Health England data showed Covid cases are rising fastest among 10 to 19-year-olds (grey line) and 20 to 29-year-olds (green line). Approving Covid vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds would likely help curb the spread of the virus in the age group, scientists in favour of the move claim

Schools have been left to work with local public health teams to decide what action is best to keep pupils safe this time around.

Mr Williamson also backed calls for vaccines to be given to healthy children aged 12 to 15 to help keep transmission low in schools.

He put pressure on No10’s vaccine advisory board to come down in favour of the move despite the group having serious reservations about the benefit.  

During a round of interviews, Mr Williamson told LBC radio: ‘I will move heaven and earth to make sure that we aren’t in a position of having to close schools.

‘We’ve had two years where we’ve not been able to run a normal series of exams. I don’t think anyone wants to see a third year of that.

‘We want to get back to normal, not just in terms of what the classroom experience is like but also the exam experience.’

But the Education Secretary did not rule out a rise in infections being caused by schools reopening.

Mr Williamson told Sky News: ‘This is why we’re doing the testing programme and we’re encouraging children to take part in it, parents, and of course teachers and support staff as well. This is a way of rooting out Covid-19.

Gavin Williamson backs Covid jabs for 12-year-olds

Gavin Williamson today piled pressure on the Government’s vaccine advisory panel to sign off on plans to jab children as young as 12 against Covid. 

During a round of interviews this morning, the Education Secretary said he ‘very much hoped’ the group would come down in favour of routinely inoculating youngsters aged 12 to 15. 

He suggested the delayed decision was making parents anxious about sending their children back to classrooms this week after the summer break. ‘I think parents would find it deeply reassuring to have a choice of whether their children should have a vaccine or not,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) — an independent body which advises No10 on the Covid jab roll-out — is still weighing up the risks and benefits of vaccinating children.

In guidance published in July, the group said the small risk of heart inflammation from vaccines outweighed the tiny threat coronavirus poses to them. It was also not convinced that vaccinating children solely to protect adults justified the move and raised doubts about the true prevalence of long Covid in youngsters. 

But pressure has been mounting on the JCVI to green light the move and bring Britain in line with US and Israel, after Covid cases skyrocketed in Scotland when classes went back after the summer break in mid-August.

There are fears of a similar big bang in cases now that schools across the rest of the UK have started to restart. The country is already recording 35,000 infections each day and hospitalisations are creeping up.

But Professor Anthony Harnden, one of the chief scientists on the JCVI, said today the group would do what’s best for children ‘no matter what other people outside the committee think’.

A member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) suggested giving children one dose of Covid vaccine because heart complications are more common following the second injection.

‘We’re trying to strike that constant, sensible balance of actually giving children as normal experience in the classroom as possible, but also recognising we’re still dealing with a global pandemic.’

All secondary school and college pupils are being invited to take two lateral flow tests at school, three to five days apart, in England on their return.

Schools and colleges are being encouraged to maintain increased hygiene and ventilation, and secondary school and college pupils in England have been asked to continue to test twice weekly at home.

Mr Williamson did not rule out outdoor classes and assemblies having to take place in the event of outbreaks.

But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is certainly not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of, especially in autumn and winter.’

Schools in England no longer have to keep pupils in year group ‘bubbles’ to reduce mixing and face coverings are no longer advised.

Children do not have to isolate if they come into contact with a positive case of Covid-19.

Instead, they will need to get a PCR test and isolate only if positive.

The medical director of Public Health England (PHE) moved to reassure parents as pupils return to classrooms, saying schools are not the ‘drivers’ or ‘hubs’ of Covid-19 infection in communities.

Dr Yvonne Doyle told BBC Breakfast: ‘There’ll be extra cleaning and hygiene, advice on ventilation (and) the testing is extremely important.’

She added that authorities had anticipated Covid-19 outbreaks as schools reopened, saying they are ‘part of normal practice’.

But Professor Calum Semple said schools are likely to be a ‘greater part of the problem’ when it comes to spread of coronavirus than they previously were, and compared with workplaces where the majority of adults are vaccinated and many continue to work from home

The NHS is preparing to ensure it is ready to potentially offer Covid-19 vaccines to all 12 to 15-year-olds in England from this month, although a decision has yet to be taken by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) about this age group.

Mr Williamson said there is the capacity to both give Covid-19 vaccinations to 12 to 15-year-olds and deliver a booster programme.

He told Sky News: ‘If we get the get-go from JCVI we’re ready, the NHS, which has been so successful in rolling out this programme of vaccination, is ready to go into schools and deliver that vaccination programme for children.’

As pupils return to classrooms, schools in England can sign up with this year’s external tuition providers through the Government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to offer pupils catch-up support.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said up to six million pupils are set to benefit from catch-up tuition for lost learning over the next three years under a ‘tutoring revolution’ in schools.

Meanwhile, Professor Ferguson, from Imperial College London, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said he expected a sharp rise in cases this winter.

He said it will be for the Government to decide on potential measures and would not be drawn on what form they might take.

Speaking to reporters during a webinar on Thursday, he said there are concerns about the effect schools reopening could have on virus spread, especially with the more transmissible and now-dominant Delta variant.

He said: ‘We expect to see quite a significant surge in cases, to some extent in hospitalisations, but whether that’s going to require any rolling back of the relaxation of restrictions is too early to say. It really depends on the level of healthcare demand.’

He said if an unvaccinated population of 5 or 10 per cent all got Covid in a short period of time it would result in a ‘large healthcare burden, and a large number of deaths’ and that it could also ‘have a risk of significantly overwhelming health systems even in high income countries such as the UK’.

He said it is hard to predict how long any rise in case numbers, as seen in Scotland after schools went back, would go on for.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson vows to 'move heaven and earth' to avoid shutting schools again

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson vows to 'move heaven and earth' to avoid shutting schools again

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson vows to 'move heaven and earth' to avoid shutting schools again

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson vows to 'move heaven and earth' to avoid shutting schools again

He said: ‘Obviously the relationship between case numbers and hospitalisations has changed now, fundamentally because of vaccination. So we can cope with much higher numbers of cases per day and still maintain hospitalisations at, well, the Government would say acceptable levels, and deaths would be even lower, but that only holds for so long.

‘So if we do get above 100,000/150,000 cases a day, then we start seeing very significant demands on the health system, and it will be up to the Government to decide at that point, or at some maybe earlier point, what the implications are for policy.

‘I’m not going to get drawn on what that might be.’

Mr Williamson piled pressure on the JCVI to sign off on plans to jab kids as young as 12 saying he ‘very much hoped’ it would come down in favour of the move. 

He suggested the delayed decision was making parents anxious about sending their children back to classrooms this week after the summer break. 

‘I think parents would find it deeply reassuring to have a choice of whether their children should have a vaccine or not,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

The JCVI — an independent body which advises No10 on the Covid jab roll-out — is still weighing up the risks and benefits of vaccinating children.

In guidance published in July, the group said the small risk of heart inflammation from vaccines outweighed the tiny threat coronavirus poses to them. 

It was also not convinced that vaccinating children solely to protect adults justified the move and raised doubts about the true prevalence of long Covid in youngsters. 

But pressure has been mounting on the JCVI to green light the move and bring Britain in line with US and Israel, after Covid cases skyrocketed in Scotland when classes went back after the summer break in mid-August.

There are fears of a similar big bang in cases now that schools across the rest of the UK have started to restart. 

The country is already recording 35,000 infections each day and hospitalisations are creeping up.

But Professor Anthony Harnden, one of the chief scientists on the JCVI, said today the group would do what’s best for children ‘no matter what other people outside the committee think’.

A member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) suggested giving children one dose of Covid vaccine because heart complications are more common following the second injection.

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