Almost 50 Conservative MPs have told Boris Johnson that schools must return to normal from July 19, as they called for an end to “unnecessary disruption”.
Former Tory cabinet ministers, ministers, ministerial aides and select committee chairs are among the 48 signatories of a hard-hitting letter sent to the Prime Minister on Wednesday demanding that school bubbles be scrapped.
They warned that the Government’s guidance on self-isolation was a “disproportionate” and “unsustainable” policy that was sparking “deep uncertainty and anxiety among a cohort who have already suffered enough”.
The MPs continued that “bubbles in schools are causing ongoing and severe disruption and preventing schools from operating normally and being able to offer the full array of extracurricular activities and sports which are so vital for children’s health”.
Their intervention comes after The Telegraph launched a campaign this week calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from repeated lockdowns, with decisive action to end the chaos in schools and reverse the harm caused.
Tory MPs’ letter to Boris Johnson in full
The Department for Education has released figures showing that nearly 250,000 pupils are off school in England, including 172,000 children who are being forced to self-isolate because of a case at school rather than because they tested positive for Covid or developed symptoms themselves.
Other children have been forced to self-isolate over contacts outside the school or due to suspected cases.
On Monday, Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, announced he would take fresh advice on the issue.
While the Government has indicated that isolation could be replaced with daily testing for pupils by September, Tory MPs are calling for the timetable to be accelerated.
In their letter, they said: “It is vital that all schools go back to normal from 19th July when restrictions lift, even if just for the last few days of term. This will send an important signal ahead of the autumn that the route to freedom is a ‘one way road’ and genuinely ‘irreversible’.”
Campaign for Children: Falling behind
Their call echoed that of Rachel de Souza, the new Children’s Commissioner for England, who said urgent action was needed to get children "back to normal" in an interview with this newspaper this week.
Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary, former education ministers Rob Halfon and Tim Loughton, and former health ministers Jackie Doyle-Price and Steve Brine are among those Tory MPs who have signed the letter to Mr Johnson.
Select committee chairs Julian Knight, Sir Bob Neill, William Wragg, Caroline Nokes and Tom Tugendhat have also put their names to it.
The parliamentarians further warned in the letter that “a child’s ability to receive an education must not be linked to the vaccination status of either individual children or the cohort as a whole”.
They emphasised that ministers must affirm the right of each parent to “determine what is in the best interests of their children”.
Vaccines hoarded for children ‘who don’t need it’
Instead of enforcing jabs for children, which they argued amounts to “selfishly hoarding vaccines for parts of our population who don’t need it”, the MPs urged Mr Johnson to “take a lead in protecting frontline workers, the elderly and the most vulnerable in some of the poorest parts of the world”.
The letter, published today by The Telegraph, reveals the scale of deep unease on Tory back benches about the Government’s approach and will spark fears in Downing Street that the MPs could seek to leverage their power in the Commons.
Only 40-odd Tory rebels are required to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Government if they gang up with the opposition parties. While no vote is imminent on Covid policy in schools, the threat of an ambush on other legislation has not been ruled out.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Wednesday that ministers were working on the issue of self-isolation for pupils, “to see what more can be done, both long term and this term as well”.
He added that while “we know that self-isolation is effective at limiting transmission”, it was true that “only close contacts need to isolate and whole bubbles do not necessarily need to be sent home”.
The No 10 spokesman said the Government was still waiting for the JCVI to submit advice on vaccinating children before taking any decisions.
A government spokesman said in response to the MPs’ suggestion that vaccine doses should be sent overseas instead of offered to children: “At the G7 earlier this month, we secured a commitment to provide an additional 1 billion doses in the next year to developing countries, including 100 million from the UK.
“The UK has led efforts to ensure the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people have access to vaccines.”
Molly Kingsley: ‘Parents are weary of hearing rhetoric from government ministers’
Children have been at the bottom of the heap in decision making for the last 15 months. We have closed their schools, damaged their education and social development and cancelled their sport.
Sport and exercise are a crucial factor in wellbeing and preventing mental health issues. Yet while football fans crowded London stadiums for the Euros, restrictions in schools are stopping sports days or the full array of sports and PE lessons.
And ministers are still making statements that seem to ignore the very basic reality of what is happening under their laws. Yesterday, the Department for Education tweeted that “we want to give pupils a love of sport and be the stars of tomorrow”. Yet last week a total of 385,500 pupils were off school isolating, grounded at home and unable to partake in lessons or sports. And only 15,000 of those children had actually tested positive for Covid.
The Prime Minister wants to “restore Britain’s place as a scientific superpower”, yet kids are prevented from getting into school science labs because of bubbles.
Frankly, parents are weary of hearing rhetoric from government ministers and departments which are then betrayed by their actions.
Children have sacrificed so much to keep the country safe during the pandemic and there is an urgent need to balance the harms of our actions.
Campaign for children (Day 2)
Not only has this generation missed over 1 billion school days, but they’ve lost physical fitness, suffered mental health damage, and experienced catastrophic learning loss. Children have been living under these restrictions now for 15 months. It is too long.
Following lockdown and school closures, one in six children now suffers with a mental health disorder; one third of children are ‘inactive’, failing to do even 30 minutes of exercise per day and tragically a staggering 100,000 children have failed to return to education full time.
It is vital that we now restore normality in schools.
First, we need to get rid of the guidance on self-isolation that is causing so much unnecessary and significant disruption in schools. Second, bubbles must end so that schools can operate normally again and so that teachers can do their jobs.
And finally, the JCVI must be allowed to make its determination on childhood vaccinations free from political interference – and whatever they decide the vaccination status of children must never be linked to their fundamental right to access the classroom.
If children have symptoms of Covid then clearly they should stay at home but beyond that it is not clear why, at a point when close to 90 per cent of adults have Covid antibodies either from vaccination or infection, anything less than fully normal and unconditional education would be proposed. Schools must go back to normal and they must do so on a permanent and ongoing basis.
Children have had enough and now need normality, security and certainty. They need to recover their health and wellbeing, education and their futures. We owe it to them to now put their interests first.
Molly Kingsley is co-founder of children’s campaign group UsforThem
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Children lockdown mental health callout/form