Wales will hope to “take advantage” of its lower rate of coronavirus transmissions to get pupils back into schools ahead of other UK nations, First Minister Mark Drakeford has said.
The Welsh Labour leader said a phased return to the classroom, starting with primary school children, could begin “straight after half-term” if Covid cases continue to fall.
Wales currently has a rate of 170 cases per 100,000 of its population, down from 270 per 100,000 last Friday, while the country’s R number is estimated to be around 0.7, meaning the virus is on the decline.
Mr Drakeford said on Friday that, following a three-week review, it is still too early to relax lockdown restrictions which have been in place since December 20, despite the promising figures.
But he said he will look to reopen schools in February, with the youngest pupils being prioritised if case numbers continue to fall.
Asked why this is earlier than in England and Northern Ireland, Mr Drakeford told BBC Breakfast: “Because the context is different. Today we have 175 people in Wales for every 100,000 contracting coronavirus.
“In England a couple of days ago the average was 350, and our 170 figure is falling every day, so you can see the context is very different.
“We want to take advantage of that. Our children and young people have had a torrid time over the last 12 months, they are missing out on education every week.”
Coronavirus cases are steadily falling thanks to your efforts. And every vaccine delivered is a small victory against the virus.
But rates are still too high. Our NHS remains under significant pressure. We need to keep going a little longer to bring the virus under control.
— Mark Drakeford (@fmwales) January 29, 2021
Mr Drakeford said the Welsh Government is working with local education authorities, teaching unions and the Children’s Commissioner to return young people to face-to-face learning “as soon as it is safe to do so”.
“Provided the next three weeks see further falls, we think we can do that straight after half-term. That’s what we’ll be working on together,” Mr Drakeford said.
The country’s incidence rate, test positivity rate, and the number of people in hospitals and in critical care will all be taken into account before a decision is made on reopening schools, he said, describing it as “the top priority for us here in Wales”.
Mr Drakeford said teachers will only be prioritised for a vaccine if the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) changes its advice.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We follow the advice of the JCVI. If the committee tell us to prioritise teachers, that is what we will do.
“While its advice remains that the top nine priority groups should be the focus of our attention, that is what we will do.
“If the advice were to change, then we would follow the changed advice.”
Earlier on Friday, Mr Drakeford said Level 4 restrictions will remain in place for another three weeks in order to “allow the NHS to recover” from the surge in cases over Christmas.