Boris Johnson has refused to rule out different year groups of pupils returning to English schools in a staggered process, as the prime minister argued that any reopening from lockdown should be “cautious but irreversible”.
Speaking to reporters on a visit to a coronavirus vaccination centre in south-east London, Johnson said that while the process of fully reopening schools in England would begin on 8 March, it remained to be seen how fast this would happen.
“No decisions have been taken on that sort of detail yet,” he said when asked whether secondary pupils could return later than primary pupils. “Though clearly schools on 8 March has for a long time been a priority of the government and of families up and down the country.”
Asked about his words, Johnson’s spokesperson echoed the cautious approach, saying only that it was “our intention to start getting kids back to school from 8 March”.
The prime minister is due to set out a broad timetable for emerging from lockdown next Monday, following a review of the evidence this week, with a schedule forthe relaxation of social distancing, then the reopening of non-essential shops, and then pubs and restaurants.
Speaking on the visit, he said any dates set out then would still be subject to change, with the primary aim being not to reopen so fast that corrective measures were needed later.
The dates that we will be setting out will be the dates by which we hope we can do something at the earliest, if you see what I mean – so it’s the target date by which we hope to do something at the earliest,” he said.
“If, because of the rate of infection, we have to push something off a little bit to the right, to lay it for a little bit, we won’t hesitate to do that. I think people would much rather see a plan that was cautious but irreversible and one that proceeds sensibly in accordance with where we are with the disease.”
The approach echoes the tone taken by Johnson and his ministers during the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, following accusations that earlier in the pandemic he had both locked down too late and allowed England to emerge from restrictions too soon.
Johnson is due to lead a Downing Street press conference on Monday afternoon, alongside the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, and Sir Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England. It follows the news that the government target of offering at least a first vaccination to all those in the top groups seen as most vulnerable by Monday had been met in England.
Johnson said he would like to see infection rates “come down very low indeed”, and that the new quarantine programme that began on Monday, in which arrivals to the UK from 33 “red list” countries must stay at a hotel for 10 days, was intended to curb the spread of new variants of coronavirus.
“The risk is that if you have a large volume of circulation, if you’ve got loads of people, even young people, getting the disease then a couple of things happen,” he said.
“First of all, you have a higher risk of new variants and mutations within the population where the disease is circulating. Secondly, there will also be a greater risk of the disease spreading out into the older groups again.”
He also confirmed the government’s approach to “vaccine passports”, proving people have been vaccinated against coronavirus.
While the idea of documents allowing Britons to travel to countries that required proof of vaccination was “very much in the mix down the road”, he ruled out the idea of immunity certificates governing rules domestically.
“What I don’t think we will have in this country is vaccination passports to allow you to go to, say, the pub or something like that,” he said.