Tory MPs urge regional approach to solve ‘national schools emergency’


Schools should be reopened after the February half-term break in areas where Covid-19 infection rates are low, Conservative MPs have urged.

The Government was also told to treat the closures as a “national emergency” given the mental health “timebomb” being created by the pandemic, with children, parents and school staff all struggling.

Education minister Nick Gibb said the Government will be “led by the science” when making decisions about “moving away from the lockdown conditions”.

It is expected parents will receive two weeks’ notice ahead of any reopening and the Government will be “making announcements in the next few days”, Mr Gibb added.

Speaking in the Commons during an urgent question on the issue, Conservative MP and chairman of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon raised high levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm among children due to school closures – and the pressures faced by parents.

He said: “We just need to get our schools open again sooner rather than later.

“Why not open schools and colleges in the areas where Covid cases and the R (rate) is significantly lower?”

Mr Gibb highlighted mental health support in place, before replying: “He asked about regional differences in infection rates – we will always be led by the science when making decisions about moving away from the lockdown conditions.”

Siobhan Baillie, Conservative MP for Stroud, said: “I hope the backbenchers get louder on this point as it’s more important than ever – we need to hear about my Stroud dad who contacted me because he is so desperately worried about the mental health of his children being at home all day.

“And the parents that are contacting me on Instagram – Instagram is for pictures of cats – and they are absolutely at their wits’ end about juggling childcare and work as well.

“Will (Mr Gibb) assure Stroud’s parents that the reopening of schools is being treated as a national emergency, and taking his point about evidence – will he work with the six Gloucestershire MPs to see if our falling Covid case rates and low transmission in schools means our primary schools can reopen after half-term?”

Mr Gibb said the mental health of pupils, parents and school staff is taken “very seriously”, adding: “At every step we will be led by the scientific advice about when it is safe to reopen schools.”

Conservative Felicity Buchan (Kensington) said the “majority of parents” in her area would like to see their children return to school after the half-term break, adding: “Can he assure me everything is being done to get children back into school and that we have not ruled out a return after the mid-term break?”

Mr Gibb said “no-one is keener” than him to see “all schools back and open to all children and young people”.

Conservative Simon Jupp (East Devon) suggested the option of reopening schools “on a regional basis” should be kept on the table.

Mr Jupp said: “Getting our children safely back into school is clearly a priority for this Government and it is right that reopening next month remains under review.

“I am sure many parents in East Devon will be concerned by significant delays, as we all know that although schools across Devon are going above and beyond to provide virtual learning, nothing beats the classroom.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“Could (Mr Gibb) confirm the Government will keep all options on the table for reopening schools, including reopening on a regional basis if the scientific evidence supports a phased return based on vaccinations and case rates in different parts of the country?”

Mr Gibb replied: “So we do want to see schools open as soon as possible, as we’ve always said during this pandemic that schools should be the last to close and the first to open.

“We do consult with stakeholders and advisory groups about the options for reopening and we keep all those issues under review.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green, who asked the urgent question, said: “We simply don’t know what the Government’s plan is for school reopening other than what we read in the newspapers.”

She added parents and staff “need answers to these questions and they need them now”.

Labour former schools minister Dame Diana Johnson added: “Families in Hull North are struggling and as a nation we’re storing up a timebomb of mental health issues for a generation.”

Conservative Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) also said: “Does the minister agree with me that vaccinating teachers and staff at all schools would bring great benefits, and particularly so at special schools?”

Mr Gibb replied: “The priority for the first phase is on mortality but in the second phase the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will be looking at different occupations, and the Department of Education will be pressing the case for the education workforce.”