Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has rejected pressure from unions to call for a phased return of schools, arguing that “ideally” all children should be back in England’s classrooms on March 8.
Sir Keir said he hoped Boris Johnson would set out a “cautious, careful” exit from lockdown when the Prime Minister publishes his road map on Monday but the full return of schools should be the aim.
His stance comes after a coalition of unions and professional bodies warned that reopening schools to all pupils in England at the same time would be “reckless” and could risk another spike in Covid-19 infections.
The joint statement was from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the NAHT school leaders’ union, the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, the National Governance Association (NGA), the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) and Labour-affiliated unions Unison, Unite and GMB.
Sir Keir told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “Ideally, I’d like to see all schools back open on 8th March and all children back in school on March 8.
“I’ve been worried through the pandemic, a number of people have, about the impact that being out of school has on particularly vulnerable children and the attainment gap is getting bigger, so ideally March 8.
“We’ll have to see obviously where the data is, see where the science is, but that’s what we should be working towards.
“If that means more testing, if that means Nightingale classrooms, if it means other measures, let’s do that because I want to get our kids back into school.”
Sir Keir said he wanted the road map to be accompanied by published scientific evidence and an extended support package for businesses.
“We all want this to be the last lockdown so we’ve got to come out of it in a measured way, but make sure we are not back where we started in a number of weeks or months, so roll out slowly, carefully, follow the science,” he said.
Labour has called for business rate relief to go on for another six months and VAT cuts for hospitality to keep businesses viable.
“They’ve got this far; they need to survive beyond the next set of restrictions,” he said.
“Vaccine passports within the UK, I think, is something we need a national debate about, it is very difficult to see how it would work, but let’s tread very, very carefully on this,” he said.
“I’d be very worried, for example, if we got to a situation where it was suggested that people would lose their job if they hadn’t had a vaccine.
“On the other hand, I can of course see the concerns people have about their own safety, perhaps in their home, in their teams at work … and that’s why I really think on this one, we need a proper national debate.
“Let’s not pretend there’s an easy yes/no answer, because there isn’t one.”
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the unions should be listened to on the issue of schools reopening.
He told Sky News: “The teaching unions are saying, very similar to Keir, that of course we want the schools to open but it’s got to be safe and I can’t think of anyone better to listen to than those on the frontline, and that is the teachers’ unions.”