Coronavirus: Michael Gove guarantees teacher safety before U-turn

Michael Gove guarantees teachers will be safe when schools return before backtracking and insisting ‘you can never eliminate risk’ as Boris Johnson faces council backlash over plans to reopen primaries from June 1

  • Government wants to start phased reopening of primary schools from June 1 
  • But union bosses have hit out at the plans and insisted they will block them
  • They want teacher and pupil safety guarantees from ministers before restart
  • Michael Gove today did guarantee their safety before then swiftly backtracking 
  • It comes after some councils told Boris Johnson they will not comply with plans
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Michael Gove today guaranteed teachers and pupils will be safe when schools are reopened before swiftly backtracking as he said ‘you can never eliminate risk’. 

The Government is locked in a furious row with councils and teaching unions over its plans to begin the phased reopening of primary schools from June 1 as the coronavirus lockdown is eased. 

Some teaching unions are blocking the move and have said they will only budge once they are persuaded it is totally safe for teachers and children to go back to the classroom. 

Meanwhile, a number of local authorities have said they will not comply with Boris Johnson’s lockdown strategy and will exercise caution when it comes to reopening schools. 

Mr Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, today tried to assuage concerns as he insisted it will be safe for teachers and students before then performing a screeching U-turn and admitting there will be at least some level of risk. 

It came as the Government saw its approval rating take a sharp dip in the week after the Prime Minister set out his strategy for lifting lockdown measures. 

A new Opinium survey showed that disapproval for the PM’s response to the outbreak is now higher than approval for the very first time.

Some 39 per cent of the nation are supportive of the Government’s handling of the crisis, down nine points on the 48 per cent recorded last week, while disapproval rose from 36 per cent to 42 per cent.  

Michael Gove today initially guaranteed the safety of returning teachers before then admitting that there will be some ‘risk’

Schools across the UK have now been shut to the vast majority of pupils for more than six weeks

Boris Johnson, pictured in Downing Street on Mat 15, is facing a growing backlash over his plans for the phased reopening of primary schools from June 1

Boris Johnson tells Tory MPs he wants return to ‘near normality’ in July

Boris Johnson has told Tory MPs he wants to return to ‘near-normality’ in July as he hails British ‘good sense’ over the lockdown and announces £93million to bring forward the opening of a research centre to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.

Speaking to 100 of his colleagues via video link, the Prime Minister said he would take ‘grandmother steps’ to ease the rules, but only if Britons comply with the current lockdown measures. He also confirmed that Commons discussions will resume on June 2. 

It comes as Mr Johnson declares British people’s ‘fortitude’ will enable them to survive the Covid-19 crisis and regain ‘the freedoms they hold dear’. 

He says that the epidemic has brought out ‘the best in humanity’ and that the public’s ‘perseverance’ and ‘good common sense’ will enable the country to ‘inch forwards’ out of lockdown and towards ‘much-missed normality’.

Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday, Mr Johnson also announces that an Oxfordshire research centre will be opening a year ahead of schedule in an attempt to fast-track a vaccine against the coronavirus. 

An MP listening in on the video call told The Sun: ‘Boris told us he is determined that the country should be as close to normality again before the end of July.

‘But he was clear that it all depends on the country meeting the conditions that have been set for tackling the virus.

‘Most importantly that means bringing down the infection rate – and that can only be achieved if we continue to obey the rules on social distancing to help stop it spreading.’

Mr Johnson’s exclusive article will be seen as an attempt to draw a line under the chaotic days in Westminster which followed his televised address to the nation last Sunday, which left many people confused about the rules about meeting friends and family.

The Prime Minister clarifies today: ‘You can now spend as much time as you like outdoors, for example sitting and enjoying the fresh air, picnicking, or sunbathing. You can meet one other person from a different household outdoors, provided you maintain social distancing.’

The Government’s schools plan will see reception, year one and year six pupils return in June with other year groups returning later. 

Secondary schools are not due to reopen before the summer holidays but pupils in year 10 and year 12 will be offered time with teachers ahead of them entering their exam year. 

Mr Gove was asked this morning during an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show if teachers should be safe when returning to work. 

He replied: ‘Yes, teachers will be safe in schools. The programme that has been outlined is a staged and careful return with children in reception, year one and year six of primary coming back to school we hope in the week beginning June 1.

‘It is the case that some of the best leaders in current education have said that it is absolutely safe for children to return, absolutely safe for teachers and other staff to return as well.’

Asked if he could guarantee that teachers will be safe, he said: ‘Yes. It is the case, as I say, I talked to the chief scientific adviser yesterday for the government Patrick Vallance and running through the figures, the R number, the rate of infection in the community overall, we are confident that children and teachers will be safe.’

However, when asked directly if he could guarantee that no returning teacher will catch coronavirus at school, Mr Gove said: ‘The only way ever to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely. 

‘There is always, always, always in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching the coronavirus.’

He continued: ‘The key thing is that we can make these workplaces safe. You can never eliminate risk but as we know, as we have heard, it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak and if for any reason there are risks then we can take steps to mitigate them.’ 

Hartlepool Council has now joined Liverpool in saying its schools will remain shut on June 1 as local coronavirus cases continue to rise.

Hartlepool said in a statement: ‘Given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise, Hartlepool Borough Council has been working with schools and we have agreed they will not reopen on Monday 1st June.

Countries including Denmark (pictured) have already begun reopening schools with social distancing measures in place

Michael Gove reveals more than 17,000 contact tracers have now been recruited

Michael Gove today revealed the Government has recruited more than 17,000 coronavirus contact tracers putting ministers on track to hit their 18,000 target. 

The staff will play a key role in efforts to prevent a second wave of the deadly disease as they are tasked with figuring out where people who test positive have been and who they may have come into contact with. 

Mr Gove’s announcement came just days after his fellow Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said the Government had only managed to recruit people for 1,500 of the roles. 

However, there are concerns about the long term future of the ‘test, track and trace’ programme after it was claimed staff are only being hired on initial three month contracts. 

Health experts believe such a scheme will need to be in place for as long as 18 months. 

‘Whilst we recognise the importance of schools reopening, we want to be absolutely clear that we will be taking a measured and cautious approach to this.’ 

Liverpool has confirmed that its schools will only be open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers on June 1.

Asked for his message to councils blocking the return of schools, Mr Gove said children ‘only have one chance at education’. 

‘Over the course of the last decade we have made significant strides in closing the gap between the richest and the poorest in our schools,’ he said. 

‘This lockdown has put that backwards. If you really care about children you will want them to be in school, you will want them to be learning, you will want them to have new opportunities so look to your responsibilities.’ 

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said she supported councils in trying to ensure their residents are safe when asked about local authorities which are refusing to reopen schools on the Government’s timetable. 

She told the BBC: ‘If you look at what Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor, said in the Guardian last night, the communication from the Government – in terms of the safety measures for areas like Greater Manchester, Liverpool, like the north east – has been patchy so the information hasn’t been there.

‘We believe the R rate is higher in those areas, in those regions, so therefore we want the Government to publish the science behind it and provide the support.’

Pressed on Labour’s support for councils not wanting to reopen schools to all pupils, Ms Rayner said: ‘I urge the Government to publish the science and to ensure testing and tracing is in place to safeguard.

Boris Johnson and the UK’s top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill clashed over who is responsible for rolling out the Government’s lockdown exit strategy, it was claimed today. 

The Prime Minister and Sir Mark are said to have had a ‘tense’ standoff when the plans to ease restrictions were being discussed at a meeting last week.

Mr Johnson apparently asked the room who was responsible for actually implementing the measures contained within the blueprint. 

He asked Sir Mark if it was him, but the head of the Civil Service replied it was up to the PM to make sure things happen. 

The claims came amid reports of growing splits between ministers and senior civil servants. 

Mandarins fear they are being lined as coronavirus ‘fall guys’ ahead of an inevitable public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the crisis. 

Meanwhile, a plan to quarantine travellers returning to the UK has prompted a Cabinet split over who it should apply to with aides concerned it is rapidly becoming a ‘sh**show’. 

‘Councils want to make sure their citizens are safe. I support them in trying to do that.’

Many teaching unions have resisted the reopening plans but some have said they will urge their members to go back to work on June 1.  

The Association of School and College Leaders said it would advise in favour of reopening after talks with government experts on Friday. 

The National Association of Head Teachers suggested it would do the same as long as it is given the full expert advice held by the government. 

But the British Medical Association has said it is against reopening schools on June 1 on the grounds that ‘we cannot risk a second spike’ of infections. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has appealed to every teaching union to work with the Government to find ‘practical solutions’ to enable schools in England to re-open.

He told the daily Downing Street press conference yesterday that his ‘door is always open’ as he lavished praise on teachers. 

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, welcomed Mr Williamson’s commitment to talk, saying it was essential ministers provided the reassurance teachers were seeking. 

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, welcomed a commitment by Mr Williamson to monitor the effects of this week’s loosening of the lockdown before going ahead with other measures.

‘This is sensible. We will take up Mr Williamson’s statement that his door is open in order to seek to engage in discussions about a safe way forward,’ he said.

Mr Johnson said he hoped schools could start re-opening from June 1 when he set out his plans last Sunday for easing the lockdown in England.

However the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have refused to follow suit. 

A new survey conducted by Opinium found more people now disapprove of the Government’s handling of the crisis than approve for the first time since the outbreak started

Michael Gove admits ‘big lessons’ must be learned from care home crisis

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said there are ‘big lessons’ to be learned from the treatment of care homes during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Gove said the Government had taken ‘significant steps’ to improve the situation of those in care homes.

However, amid growing criticism that they had failed to provide adequate support to the sector, he acknowledged the situation remained a ‘challenge’.

‘There are big lessons to be learned,’ he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

‘We are still living through this pandemic and there will be lessons to be learned. We have taken significant steps to improve the care of people in care homes.

‘There will be a point in the future when all of us can look back and reflect and make sure we have learned the appropriate lessons.’ 

The UK Government’s school reopening plans will see a ‘hierarchy of controls’ put in place to ensure proper hand-washing, hygiene and cleaning systems within schools while class sizes will be reduced to a maximum of 15. 

Expert: World data on reopening schools is ‘very reassuring’ 

Data from countries which have reopened schools has been ‘very reassuring’ but governments need to consider what checks are needed to avoid a spread of Covid-19, a senior global health official has said.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), said decisions on whether to allow schools to open are often being done at a community or city level, based on factors such as whether the virus is under control.

She also told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show she believes that ‘society has to restart’ but that there will be a new normal.

Asked about the reopening of schools, and evidence from countries that have done so, Dr Swaminathan said: ‘Overall, the data has been very reassuring, though of course it’s only a few countries that have done that.

‘The guidance that has been put out by WHO clearly lays out the criteria you would use when you consider whether to reopen a school or not.’

Dr Swaminathan said this is based on factors such as the progress of the disease – whether it is on the rise or under control and going down, as well as whether there has been time to put measures into place such as rearranging classrooms and ensuring there are handwashing facilities.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has voiced her ‘despair’ at the continued ‘squabbling’ between ministers and unions which she said is impacting on children’s life chances. 

‘My worry within all that is that the needs of children and the best interests of children are disappearing from view,’ she told the BBC. 

It came as Mr Johnson was warned he risks fracturing national unity if he fails to listen to regional concerns about the easing of lockdown. 

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said the Prime Minister did not inform civic leaders of his easing of restrictions in advance and said the dropping of the Government’s ‘stay at home’ message felt ‘premature’.

While cases of coronavirus have been easing in the South East, Mr Burnham believes the loosening of restrictions came too quickly for the North.

‘On the eve of a new working week, the PM was on TV ‘actively encouraging’ a return to work,’ Mr Burnham wrote in the Observer. 

‘Even though that would clearly put more cars on roads and people on trams, no-one in Government thought it important to tell the cities that would have to cope with that.’

The manner in which the lockdown easing was announced appears to have hit the Government’s approval ratings amid claims the PM’s three phase plan was ‘confusing’. 

There is also disquiet over the decision to replace the ‘stay at home’ slogan with the ‘stay alert’ message with more than half people believing the latter is not clear.  

Adam Drummond, the head of political polling at Opinium, said: ‘In part this was likely inevitable as the relatively simple and almost unanimous decision to lockdown has given way to much more contestable decisions about how and when to open up. 

‘We have gone from a very simple and clearly understood message to a more nuanced situation with more confused messaging and a sense that the Government don’t have as firm a grip on the situation as voters would like.’

As well as pressure over his lockdown exit plan, Mr Johnson is also facing growing pressure from his rival, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

More than a third of people (35 per cent) said they approved of Sir Keir’s response to the crisis as opposed to 20 per cent who disapproved. 

Opinium conducted the survey of 2,005 UK adults online between May 13 and 14.  

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