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Pressure grows on PM to reopen schools amid warning children are pandemic's 'forgotten victims'

Sky News logo Sky News 25/01/2021

The prime minister and education secretary are coming under increasing pressure to reopen schools.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to confirm this week that there will be no return to the classroom after the February half-term break and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has already refused to guarantee that schools would reopen before Easter.

Rob Halfon, the chairman of the Commons Education Committee, said he had written to Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle asking him to summon a minister to Parliament on Monday for an urgent question.

Mr Halfon said on Twitter that he was seeking "clarity" from the Department for Education and "an education route map out of coronavirus to get children learning again at school".

a group of people sitting at a desk in a small room: The government is under pressure to reopen schools © Sky News Screen Grab The government is under pressure to reopen schools

Speaking to Sky News, he said he wants ministers to set out a "route map" for the reopening of schools.

Mr Halfon added that teachers and support staff should be "made a priority" for vaccines once the elderly and clinically vulnerable have had a jab.

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More on coronavirus:

Download the Microsoft News app for full coverage of the crisis

What are the latest lockdown rules? (Evening Standard)

Third lockdown: Why Britain failed, again (The Atlantic)

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Former cabinet minister Esther McVey said the government should take into account the damage the prolonged closures were doing to the future prospects of a generation of children.

"We genuinely seem to have forgotten about the children," she told The Daily Telegraph.

Gallery: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around the world (Photo Services) 

"Millions of them are missing out on an education, not developing socially with their friends and aren't allowed to enrich their lives by playing sports and music any more.

"They are the pandemic's forgotten victims and we've got to start thinking about their prospects and futures as well."

And Tory MP Tom Tugendhat said: "Closed schools increases inequality, exposes the most vulnerable, and creates gaps that cannot be filled. We must open schools as soon as possible."

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News the government recognised that the current situation was "challenging for the children, the teachers, for parents".

a man standing in front of a computer: Schools in England may not return until after the Easter holidays © PA Schools in England may not return until after the Easter holidays

She added: "I can assure you that the prime minister is as keen as possible to try and get back to face-to-face learning as quickly as possible.

"We know that schools are safe for children, but it's about the wider impact and conscious that children could end up acting as a vector."

It comes after the health secretary told Sky News on Sunday that teachers have a "good shout" to be "very high" on the next priority list for a coronavirus vaccine.

So far, more than five million people have had their first dose - with the UK government and devolved administrations aiming to hit 15 million by mid-February.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets staff and patients at Barnet FC's ground, The Hive, which is being used as a coronavirus vaccination centre, in north London, Britain January 25, 2021. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS © Thomson Reuters British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets staff and patients at Barnet FC's ground, The Hive, which is being used as a coronavirus vaccination centre, in north London, Britain January 25, 2021. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS

Only vulnerable pupils and children of key workers are currently able to attend school, and in a blow to parents, Mr Hancock said he wasn't sure if schools in England will reopen by Easter.

Asked if he could promise they will, he told Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday: "We have got to look at the data, we have got to look at the impact of the vaccination programme.

"The education secretary has said that we will ensure schools get two weeks' notice of return.

"I don't know whether it will be then or before then. We have got to watch the data."

It comes as The Sunday Times reported the government is preparing to rule out children returning to the classroom after the February half-term holiday, with the prospect of home schooling continuing for several months.

The paper quoted a government source as saying: "We are in this for the long haul."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We continue to keep plans for the return to school under review and will inform schools, parents and pupils of the plans ahead of February half term."

They added: "We will continue to work to reopen schools as soon as possible."

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Stay alert to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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