Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that he would force pubs, restaurants and shops to close ahead of schools in the event of a severe spike in coronavirus cases.
Mr Johnson spoke of a “moral duty” to get all pupils back in classrooms for the start of term in September, with schools only to be closed again as a last resort.
Will pubs close first?
Despite Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stating there is “little evidence” of coronavirus being transmitted in classrooms, scientific advisors have warned that more restrictions may be needed to reopen schools next month.
The warnings come after children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said the reopening of schools “should be prioritised”, stating that they should be the first to reopen and last to close in the event of any local lockdown restrictions being reimposed.
On Saturday (8 August), a Downing Street source said that Mr Johnson’s expectation is that schools would be the last sector to close, with other businesses being forced to close first in the event of a severe local lockdown.
Speaking to ITV News, the source said: “The PM has been clear that businesses including shops, pubs and restaurants should be forced to close first, with schools remaining open for as long as possible.
"The PM has stressed that the harm done to children’s education prospects by not attending school as well as to their mental health is far more damaging than the low risk posed, which schools will be carefully managing, and that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are suffering the most."
Mr Johnson reinforced this statement, writing in the Mail on Sunday that it is the “national priority” to get all pupils back into classrooms in September.
He said that keeping schools closed longer than necessary is “socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.”
However, schools minister Nick Gibb has said that the government cannot “decree” that school education would be prioritised, with such decisions instead to be made by local health chiefs.
While Mr Gibb said that all children in areas affected by local lockdowns, including Leicester, Greater Manchester and parts of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire, would be returning to classrooms in September.
But he stressed that this may not be the case for all local lockdowns and would depend on the circumstances of the local increase in infection rates.
Will Test and Trace help manage local spikes?
A new study has claimed that reopening schools in the UK would inevitably result in another outbreak of coronavirus that will peak in December, unless contact tracing is dramatically improved.
Scientists have claimed that the current Test and Trace system is not adequate enough to prevent a second wave of the virus when schools reopen, because the tracing system must reach at least 68 per cent of people who have tested positive for coronavirus, and their contacts, in order to contain the spread.
However, at present the system only reaches 50 per cent of contacts and only a small fraction of symptomatic cases are tested, according to researchers from University College London (UCL) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Scientists warned that parents no longer having to stay at home once schools return would increase transmission, and without improvements in testing, other measures will be needed to help mitigate the effects of schools reopening in September.
Such measures could include pubs being forced to shut again, or restrictions reimposed on people meeting indoors, as is currently the case in parts of Northern England following a spike in cases.
The UK government's chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, recently warned that "we are near the limit" of what we can do without causing a resurgence, and without improvements from the government, a second wave could occur in the UK around December.