Head teachers have been told to stop sending “whole school bubbles” home to self-isolate when just one pupil tests positive.
Downing Street issued the warning on Wednesday night as it came under mounting pressure from Tory backbenchers and former ministers about the hundreds of thousands of healthy children who are being forced to stay at home each time a classmate catches the virus.
This week, The Telegraph has launched a campaign calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from its repeated lockdowns, with action to bring an end to the disruption in schools.
On Tuesday it was revealed that a record 385,500 pupils are off school as a result of Covid – the vast majority of whom do not have the virus. This includes 10,500 children whose schools have closed completely.
And an analysis by this newspaper has found that at least three dozen schools around the country are currently closed due to Covid, with some telling parents that they have no plans to reopen until September.
On Wednesday, Downing Street suggested that schools should be more cautious about sending healthy children home to isolate for 10 days.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “There is guidance available to schools and that is something that is being picked up through the regional schools commissioner teams, which does set out that it is not a requirement necessarily that whole school bubbles need to isolate.”
Campaign for Children: Falling behind
It is also understood that Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, is concerned that some schools may be adopting a blanket approach to sending home whole bubbles rather than seeking to reduce the number of children who are forced to self-isolate.
Another Cabinet source told The Telegraph that schools needed to be “sensible” about applying the rules. “They don’t have to send home the whole year or a whole class. I think there’s a lot of overinterpretation of the rules by schools who seem keener to send people home than they need to be.”
The UK’s largest teacher union responded by saying that headteachers would be “absolutely livid” at the suggestion they were at fault.
Kevin Courtney, the general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It’s a bit rich for the Government to blame schools who are doing their best to follow the guidance in the circumstances.
“The idea that the Government is trying to blame them I think will enrage them. It’s the government policy that schools are implementing.”
Campaign for Children: Education: The days lost
On Wednesday, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, told the Commons that he would confirm plans to axe bubbles as part of Step 4 of the roadmap.
He said: “What I want to see is these restrictions including bubbles removed as quickly as possible along with wider restrictions in society.
“I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe over the last 18 months.”
His announcement came as tensions rose within the Tory party about the bubble policy. On Wednesday night, almost 50 Tory MPs warned Boris Johnson that schools must return to normal from July 19 and called for an end to “unnecessary disruption”.
Former Tory cabinet ministers, ministerial aides and select committee leaders were among 48 signatories of a hard-hitting letter sent to the Prime Minister.
They declared that the guidance on self-isolation for pupils was a “disproportionate” and “unsustainable” policy that was sparking “deep uncertainty and anxiety among a cohort who have already suffered enough”.
Campaign for children (Day 2)
At least 42 schools around England are currently closed owing to Covid, including two which have closed early for the summer and moved to remote learning for the rest of the term. Canford School in Bournemouth shut its doors a fortnight early for the summer holidays, while Harptury College of Gloucester closed on June 14 because of a “rising number” of cases.
A Department for Education source said that officials were ready to intervene if they felt any schools were closing unnecessarily or shutting down early for the summer holidays.
“Our expectation should be that schools should be open until term ends, not to cut it down because it suits them,” they said. “The Government expects schools to remain open for education and learning for children.”
Prof Robert Dingwall, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that allowing children to catch Covid may be better than exposing them to the “risk” of jabs.
He said children may be “better protected by natural immunity generated through infection than by asking them to take the ‘possible’ risk of a vaccine” and that the ongoing rise in cases among young people and children may constitute a “last wave” of mild infections.
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Children failed during pandemic