Secondary school pupils will be told to wear face masks from the moment they arrive until they leave when they return to classrooms this week.
In a desperate effort to protect the education of millions of youngsters amid a sharp rise in cases of the Omicron variant, Ministers have requested that pupils cover their faces all day – including while they are being taught.
Students are already asked to wear masks in communal areas.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi last night said he and Boris Johnson saw schools as their ‘No 1 priority’, adding that they wanted to ‘do everything in our power to minimise disruption’.
School teachers and pupils will have to wear masks when they return to the classroom next week under new guidance issued by the government
UK Health Security Agency data shows there were 162,572 new infections over the last 24 hours, an increase of 33 per cent on the number recorded on Christmas Day when there were 121,880. Figures are for England only today
Some 154 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded across England, up 83 per cent from the 84 recorded in the UK last week. Figures are for England only today
The wearing of masks is not a legal requirement, but Ministers expect schools to follow the guidance, which also applies to teachers and support staff.
The measures will be reviewed on January 26, with a Government source saying they ‘will not be in place a minute longer than they need to be’, and adding: ‘It is obviously a better classroom experience without masks.’
Ministers are braced for a ‘big bang’ of Omicron cases and staff shortages when students and teachers are tested for coronavirus this week.
A substantial surge in either could see larger class sizes or a return to remote learning for some pupils.
In London, where rates of Omicron are particularly high, parents have been warned that school closures cannot be ruled out.
‘As a general rule, the more you test the more you are going to find Covid,’ the source said. ‘But the idea is that by containing it early, you stop the spread in schools.’
Many MPs are opposed to online lessons given the damage already done to the education of millions of youngsters by successive lockdowns.
Writing in The Mail on Sunday today, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee, says: ‘Pupils do not need to take any more time off. Every day lost is another day that we are damaging children’s lives.’
As well as the new measures on masks, the Government is deploying 7,000 extra air-cleaning units across the education sector to improve ventilation and slow the spread of Omicron. The schools regulator Ofcom is also temporarily suspending inspections.
Ministers fear there will be a massive increase in Omicron cases when children return to the classroom next week
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi last night said he and Boris Johnson saw schools as their ‘No 1 priority’, adding that they wanted to ‘do everything in our power to minimise disruption’
The moves came as:
- A daily record of 162,572 Covid cases was recorded in England, up 47.9 per cent on last Saturday. There were 1,915 hospital admissions, up almost 50 per cent week-on-week, and 154 deaths;
- Ministers rejected calls to cut the isolation period for those with Covid-19 from seven to five days because up to 30 per cent would still be infectious;
- The continued shortage of lateral flow tests sparked fears of staff shortages in schools and hospitals and travel chaos when Britain returns to work this week;
- Official figures show that 132 million coronavirus jabs were given last year, with more than 90 per cent of over-12s now having had at least one jab. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the figure was ‘astounding and a true reflection of the fantastic work of our NHS and its volunteers’;
- The head of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said the next few days would be crucial in understanding the impact of Omicron and Ministers ‘must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed’;
- As a dozen hospitals temporarily suspended routine visits, the British Medical Association said further public health measures should be urgently introduced. But analysis of official figures reveal that just one in 40 NHS hospital staff were unavailable to work because of coronavirus in late December;
- MPs called for action after health trusts reintroduced Covid restrictions which force pregnant women to attend scans and appointments alone;
- Thousands of revellers from Scotland and Wales, where tougher coronavirus restrictions are in place, crossed the border into England to welcome in the New Year;
- One in eight of those hospitalised with Omicron are from black communities, but studies suggest the variant does less damage to the lungs than previous strains;
- As the MoS discovered dangerous anti-vax propaganda on YouTube, a father whose pregnant daughter died after being persuaded by such material not to get jabbed urged the tech firm to step up its efforts.
Teaching unions broadly welcomed the Government’s move on masks.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Reintroducing face masks in secondary classrooms appears to be a sensible move, given the circumstances.’
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the decision was ‘overdue’ and urged Ministers to make it a ‘requirement’.
No 10 is understood to have ruled out a return of the ‘bubble’ system which saw entire classes – and sometimes years – sent home if a single pupil tested positive.
‘That’s all in the past. We want to carry on classroom teaching,’ the source said.
Given the prospect of staff shortages, Ministers have renewed efforts to lure retired teachers back to the classroom.
A website through which former teachers can volunteer has received 30,000 visits and Tory MPs Jonathan Gullis and Caroline Ansell, both qualified teachers, have signed up.
Teaching unions broadly welcomed the Government’s move on masks. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Reintroducing face masks in secondary classrooms appears to be a sensible move, given the circumstances’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured, has been warned to expect a ‘big bang’ of Omicron cases in schools when they return next week. Teachers and support staff will also be required to wear masks. The measures will be reviewed on January 26
Tom Hunt, another Conservative MP who sits on the Education Select Committee, urged the Government to keep an open mind on reducing the isolation period from seven to five days, as countries including the US and Greece have done.
‘Remote learning should not be on the table… It is mission-critical to keep schools open and keep kids physically in school. No stone should be left unturned,’ he said.
Mr Hunt also urged teaching unions to be ‘constructive’.
His call came as it emerged guidance issued by the NEU advised school leaders that teachers should only have to cover for colleagues on ‘rare’ occasions.
Further guidance issued by the union before Christmas said: ‘If you are asked to cover for a colleague who is off with Covid or any other absence greater than two days, you should refuse to do it.’
Chris McGovern, the chairman of the Campaign For Real Education, said: ‘This is educational sabotage. Teachers have a choice.
‘The best and the bravest will continue to put their pupils first and they will be remembered for doing so.’
Ministers say no to five-day Covid isolation: Fears rise that schools, hospitals and transport networks could grind to a halt as Government defies calls from business chiefs to follow the US’ lead because up to 30% of sufferers ‘would still be infectious’
By Stephen Adams for the Mail on Sunday
Ministers have rejected calls to reduce the isolation period for Covid sufferers from seven to five days because up to 30 per cent would still be infectious.
Business leaders and some Tory MPs had urged Ministers to follow the lead of other countries, including the US and Greece, by cutting self-isolation for those showing no symptoms to five days.
But a Government source told The Mail on Sunday that, while the option was discussed, it was rejected because so many people could still go on to infect others if released from self-isolation that early.
Lateral flow tests have been ring-fenced for schools so they can open safely next week
Commuters face significant disruption because of large numbers of train and bus workers forced to self-isolate leading to cancelled services
It comes amid growing concern that lengthy self-isolation is harming vital services and the economy – and with a growing row over the lack of access to lateral flow tests (LFTs).
As millions prepared to return to work after the festive break, Labour accused the Government of failing to order sufficient numbers of LFTs, which are increasingly seen as essential to keep the country moving while minimising the threat from Omicron.
Ministers insist hundreds of millions more LFTs will soon be available.
Just before Christmas, self-isolation was reduced from ten to seven days as long as the individual is negative for Covid on two LFTs – the first on day six and the second on day seven.
Asked about the proposal for a further cut to five days, the Government source said: ‘The data we have is that almost one in three people could still be infectious five days after testing positive with Omicron. It isn’t thought it would be safe to cut self-isolation that far.’
The decision differs from that taken in the US where the influential Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the move to halve self-isolation from ten to five days would ‘ensure people can safely continue their daily lives’.
To re-enter everyday life after five days, Americans must be symptom-free and wear a mask around others for a further five days.
In Greece, Health Minister Thanos Plevris indicated that Omicron’s relative mildness compared with previous variants lay behind its decision to cut the period of self-isolation. ‘The evidence we have from Omicron is encouraging,’ he said.
Rather than solely rely on being symptom-free after five days, the UK Government could in theory require people to have two negative LFT results but move them forward to days four and five.
The system is, however, self-policing and people who test negative on LFTs can still be infectious, as they are less sensitive than the gold-standard PCR tests.
Another consideration would be the current poor availability of LFTs, with many pharmacies out of stock due to soaring demand.
Isolation is also causing problems in hospitals with NHS staff forced to remain at home
Last night, Labour’s health spokesman Wes Streeting said Health Secretary Sajid Javid needed to ‘pull his finger out’ to ensure people had access to the tests.
He added: ‘Given how critical testing is going to be over the course of the coming months, the Government really does need to get an immediate grip on this.
‘Testing is going to be vital to keep people working and keeping children at school. If families can’t do that, because Ministers haven’t got their act together, they will have a lot to answer for.’
Around one million LFTs are being taken every day, twice as many as PCRs.
When Omicron emerged in early December, health officials were adamant there would be enough supplies to meet higher demand.
Mr Streeting said: ‘The Health Secretary said before Christmas the challenge was distribution not supply, and there were plentiful stocks of tests in warehouses.
‘But I think it’s more likely the Government has simply underestimated demand, hasn’t ordered enough tests, and doesn’t want to ‘fess up about it.’
Ministers insist hundreds of millions of tests will soon be available and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi says tests have been ringfenced for schools to ensure they can reopen safely this week.
With Britain returning to work this week, commuters are also worried that Covid-related staff shortages will bring misery on trains.
More than 20 rail companies have already reduced services or plan to do so as a result of Covid infections and self-isolation rules.
NHS trusts ‘could start cancelling ops as soon as next week’ if Covid admissions keep rising, despite just ONE IN FORTY hospital staff being sick or isolating. Ministers set to defy calls to cut quarantine period to five days
- Modelling shown to ministers suggests hospital admissions are doubling every 16 days – and could peak in the middle of January
- England’s Covid cases breached 160,000 for second time in as many days on Saturday
- Official figures show only 2.5 per cent of NHS workforce were off due to Covid
- Meanwhile absences from non-Covid sickness fell over the same time period
- However, the picture was varied between England’s 138 NHS hospital trusts
NHS trusts could start cancelling operations next week if Covid hospitalisations escalate significantly, hospital chiefs have warned.
Modelling shown to ministers suggests that hospital admissions are doubling every 16 days – and could peak in the middle of January, according to the Telegraph.
However, the Government has rejected calls to reduce the isolation period for Covid sufferers from seven to five days because up to 30 per cent would still be infectious.
The latest figures show 2,370 Covid admissions a day in England. Another doubling could exceed the peak reached last January, when there were 4,134 daily admissions.
England’s Covid cases breached 160,000 for the second time in as many days on Saturday, official statistics showed as ministers continued to avoid enforcing new restrictions.
UK Health Security Agency data shows there were 162,572 new infections over the last 24 hours, an increase of 33 per cent on the number recorded on Christmas Day when there were 121,880. It is the highest total reported on a day in England ever, with 160,276 cases recorded yesterday.
Meanwhile, just one in 40 NHS hospital staff were unavailable to work because of Covid late last month, official figures show.
NHS trusts could start cancelling operations next week if Covid hospitalisations escalate significantly, hospital chiefs have warned. Modelling shown to ministers suggests that hospital admissions are doubling every 16 days – and could peak in the middle of January (Pictured: An NHS health worker at a pop-up vaccination centre at Redbridge Town Hall, east London on December 25)
Just one in 40 NHS hospital staff were unavailable to work because of Covid late last month, official figures show. While official figures show the number off with Covid did double in the run-up to Christmas , the virus has prevented only a small fraction of hospital staff from working. (File image)
Recent media reports have been saturated with warnings that hospital services could collapse because so many staff are either off sick with the virus or having to self- isolate because of it.
NHS England’s medical director Professor Stephen Powis last week talked of the health service being on a ‘war footing’, a phrase since frequently repeated by broadcasters.
But while official figures show the number off with Covid did double in the run-up to Christmas, the virus has prevented only a small fraction of hospital staff from working.
On December 1, 12,508 staff at English hospitals were absent due to Covid-19 ‘either through sickness or self- isolation’, according to data from NHS England.
By Boxing Day, the latest day for which figures are available, that had almost doubled to 24,632.
But with 983,000 working in NHS hospitals in England, according to official workforce statistics for 2021, it means that only 2.5 per cent of the workforce – or one in 40 – were off due to Covid towards the end of the month.
Meanwhile, non-Covid sickness absences actually fell over the same period, from 47,628 on December 1 to 43,450 on Boxing Day.
As a result, overall sickness-related absences among NHS hospital staff only rose by 13 per cent in December – from 60,136 on the first of the month to 68,082 on December 26.
Consequently, around 93 per cent of hospital staff were still fit and healthy from a work point of view at Christmas.
However, the picture is varied between England’s 138 NHS hospital trusts.
Five reported overall sickness or self-isolation absences exceeding ten per cent on Boxing Day – Sheffield Teaching Hospitals (12.2 per cent), Nottingham University Hospitals (12 per cent), Wirral University Teaching Hospitals (10.9 per cent), Warrington and Halton Hospitals (10.8 per cent) and Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (10.1 per cent).
All had higher than average Covid-related absences.
Taking Covid-related absences alone, three had rates of over five per cent on Boxing Day – Homerton University Hospital in London (7.1 per cent), Royal United Hospitals Bath (6.9 per cent) and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals (6.7 per cent).
But nine reported Covid-related absences of less than one per cent of their workforce on December 26.
The Times reported that more than 110,000 of all NHS staff – nearly one in 10 – were absent on New Year’s Eve, of whom 50,000 were at home sick or self-isolating.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has ordered a blueprint to be drawn up to deal with up to 300,000 Covid-related staff absences across the NHS, according to the Sun.
The PM has tasked ministers with developing ‘robust contingency plans’ for workplace absences as the Government acknowledged high Covid levels could hit businesses hard over the coming weeks.
Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for a worst case scenario of up to a quarter of staff off work as the virus continues to sweep across the country, the Cabinet Office said.
Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is chairing ‘regular meetings’ with ministers to assess how the highly transmissible Omicron variant is affecting workforces and supply chains.
He is also keeping close tabs on the situation in schools ahead of pupils returning for the new term.
The department said Mr Johnson has charged ministers with working with their respective sectors to test preparations and contingency plans to limit disruption from mounting Covid infections.
It acknowledged that, despite the accelerated booster programme, high Covid levels and the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant could mean businesses and public services face further disruption in the weeks to come.
Covid infections in England hit record 162,572 with another 154 deaths after revellers partied into 2022 without restrictions as Sajid Javid reveals tighter rules are unlikely – while Scots fear party-goers will bring virus back with them over the border
- UK Health Security Agency data shows there were 162,572 new infections over the last 24 hours in England
- Some 154 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded across the nation, up 83 per cent in a week
- Figures were not available for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and hospitalisation data was not updated
England’s Covid cases breached 160,000 for the second time in as many days today, official statistics showed as ministers continued to avoid enforcing new restrictions.
UK Health Security Agency data shows there were 162,572 new infections over the last 24 hours, an increase of 33 per cent on the number recorded on Christmas Day when there were 121,880.
It is the highest total reported on a day in England ever, with 160,276 cases recorded yesterday.
Some 154 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded across the nation, up 83 per cent from the 84 recorded in the UK last week.
Figures were not available for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because of differences in reporting schedules over the New Year weekend. Hospitalisation data was also not updated.
The figures come after millions of Britons partied into 2022 at late night venues across restriction-free England on New Year’s Eve, with thousands coming from Scotland – where measures such as table service in bars and no nightclubs prompted them to seek entertainment on the far side of the River Tweed.
Revellers joined boozy celebrations from Newcastle to Portsmouth and Manchester to Brighton on the final day of 2021 as they ignored the threat from Omicron and marked the end of a tumultuous 12 months.
Partygoers packed into pubs, bars and clubs until the early hours of the morning despite heightened fears about the spread of the Covid after the UK recorded 189,846 new cases yesterday and 203 deaths.
The Office for National Statistics reported an estimated 2.3million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending December 23, setting another pandemic record.
But in a fresh boost for the nation’s businesses, Health Secretary Sajid Javid hinted tighter restrictions on our everyday lives remain unlikely as he implored the nation to ‘try to live’ alongside the virus.
However, the mass arrivals from north of the English border prompted some Scots to worry on social media that returning revellers would bring coronavirus back with them.
One said that those who had taken part in celebrations in England would ‘spread further infection around Scotland’.
UK Health Security Agency data shows there were 162,572 new infections over the last 24 hours, an increase of 33 per cent on the number recorded on Christmas Day when there were 121,880. Health Secretary Sajid Javid, pictured, hinted that no fresh restrictions would come into force in England as he said Britons will have to get used to living with Covid
Pictures taken in Edinburgh and Glasgow showed the extent of the exodus to Newcastle, while in Bristol, bars and clubs were packed with Welsh people.
Empty chairs were piled up outside bars and restaurants in Glasgow’s usually bustling Merchant City district, while sparse crowds of shoppers were seen along the iconic Royal Mile.
Though, around 1,000 people made the annual pilgrimage up Calton Hill in Edinburgh for the stroke of midnight where they were greeted by a lone piper.
In Newcastle, pubs filled up with eager revellers including groups of Scottish ‘Covid refugees’ who declared themselves ‘fed up’ with the tough rules in Scotland.
Josh Urquart, Dean Heggie, Campbell McLean and Jamie had kicked off the celebrations early yesterday in a pub where they sat next to a Saltire.
Dylan Neill and Alex Cairns, both 18, had travelled from Fife with a group of pals who were checking in at their hotel in the city centre at around 1pm.
College student Dylan said: ‘We can’t go out properly back home so we’ve come to Newcastle for a night out. It’s something different.
‘It’s not ideal having these restrictions in place at New Year. If we’d stayed in Scotland we might have ended up sitting at somebody’s house. Now we’ve come here we’ll be able to go out properly.’
Meanwhile, Alex, who also goes to college, was frustrated by the local restrictions preventing him and his friends from hitting the town at home.
He said: ‘We’re fed up now with the rules at our local. Everyone in Newcastle would be fed up with it too if they were in place here.
‘We plan on going to the nightclub Tup Tup later but not sure where before that. Some of us have been here before but some never have. We’re looking forward to going out.’
A third friend, who didn’t want to be named, said: ‘We’re fed up of Nicola Sturgeon putting in these restrictions. That’s why we’re happy to be in Newcastle where we can go out and have fun.’
One Scot who was concerned about the potential for revellers to bring Covid-19 back with them said on Twitter that they risked ‘bringing further infection back to Scotland’. They added: ‘we all know there could be another variant’ of the virus.
But some people in England also complained about Scots coming in their droves to Scotland. One said they would be ‘having an early night’ whilst Scots were ‘spreading covid in my region’. Another said they had ‘no thought’ for people currently ill with the virus.