In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits St Joseph's Catholic Primary School, London.
Britain’s prime minister has asked parents to set aside their fears and send their children back to school next month when schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland fully reopen for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut them down more than five months ago.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was the government’s “moral duty” to reopen the schools as he stressed that authorities now know more about COVID-19 than they did when the country went into lockdown on March 23.
Johnson’s comments came hours after Britain’s top public health officials issued a joint statement saying that children were more likely to be harmed by staying away from school than from being exposed to COVID-19.
“This is why it’s vitally important that we get our children back into the classroom to learn and to be with their friends,’’ Johnson said in a statement released late Sunday. “Nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school.”
The statements come as parents and teachers have express concerns about reopening schools amid fears that social distancing measures won’t keep children safe. Unions have demanded that Johnson's Conservative government make sure that social distancing measures and other protective procedures are in place to ensure the safety of students and staff.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised Johnson, saying that the safe return of pupils to schools had been put at serious risk due to the botched handling of the A-level exam results, adding that a crucial two weeks' of preparation had been lost limiting the fallout of the fiasco.
In an interview with The Observer newspaper on Sunday, he said: “I want to see children back at school next month, and I expect the prime minister to deliver on that commitment. However, the commitment is now at serious risk after a week of chaos, confusion, and incompetence from the government.”
Schools across the UK closed in March as the government sought to control the spread of coronavirus. Some students in England were allowed to return in early June, but classes weren’t mandatory and only about 18 per cent of students took part.
In Scotland, pupils made a full return to schools last week, nearly five months after they closed due to the pandemic. Social distancing has not been enforced in most schools but hygiene and safety measures have been put in place.
The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales said in their statement that children are less likely to catch COVID-19 than adults and they have "an exceptionally low risk’’ of dying from the disease.
By contrast, they said studies show that not going to school limits children’s ability to succeed in life and may worsen physical and mental health problems.
“Very few, if any, children or teenagers will come to long-term harm from COVID-19 due solely to attending school,’’ the medical officers said. “This has to be set against a certainty of long-term harm to many children and young people from not attending school.”
In a statement, Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the teaching union NASUWT said: “As we have made clear since the start of this crisis, governments and administrations must follow the scientific evidence and advice when planning for the reopening of schools.
“The joint statement issued by the UK’s chief medical officers underlines the critical importance of safe working practices in schools, ensuring that social distancing and stringent hygiene measures are in place and secure at all times, particularly for those with underlying health conditions.”
Britain has the highest confirmed virus-related death toll in Europe, at 41,515 people, and Johnson's government has been strongly criticized for not locking down sooner, not getting medical workers enough protective equipment and not properly protecting the elderly in care homes from the virus.
Thousands of British travellers had to cut short vacations and rush home earlier this month after the government abruptly announced it was slapping 14-day quarantines on people returning from France.