Ministers have toughened Covid guidelines for schools where students aged 11 and over have been asked to wear masks again in classrooms as Covid infection rates continue to rise.
The measures will be in place for secondary schools in England from the start of the quarter this week through January 26 – in the strongest indication yet that the ‘plan B’ measures will also be maintained throughout this. month.
England recorded 162,572 cases of the coronavirus on Saturday – another record – with health officials warning that hospitals were struggling to cope with the outbreak.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, warned that “the next few days are crucial” in the fight to reduce the impact of the Omicron variant, and said the government “must be ready to introduce new rhythm restrictions if they are necessary ”.
He said hospital staff were working “hard” and the NHS was under “arguably more pressure” compared to the same time last year, despite a lower number of coronavirus cases in hospital.
Meanwhile, Matthew Taylor, Head of Confederation for the NHS, which represents hospitals, said visitors may need to be banned from services as the number of admissions increases. He said BBC breakfast: “Hospital managers have to make very difficult choices and excluding visitors is one of those very difficult choices.
“It’s not something everyone wants to do, it’s a last resort. But, when you’re faced with the kind of pressures healthcare services are going to be under over the next few weeks, that’s the kind of thing managers need to do. “
In addition to tightening mask guidelines, ministers have pledged 7,000 additional air filtering units for classrooms, after strong criticism from the government for not improving ventilation to counter the more infectious variant of Omicron.
But unions have warned that may not be enough to keep students in schools. Geoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This is all recognition by the government that the spring term will be extremely difficult for schools and colleges.”
“The biggest problem they face is the likelihood of high staff absences caused by the prevalence of the Omicron variant.
“While schools and colleges will do their best to minimize the impact on students, as they always do, it is possible that this means that certain classes and age groups have to be sent home for short periods. to learn from a distance. “
Mary Bousted, of the National Education Union, warned that 7,000 filters were “totally inadequate” for more than 300,000 classrooms. The move is unlikely to quell criticism that ministers dragged their feet, when – according to the Liberal Democrats – it would have cost only £ 140million to install one in every classroom, in half the cost of replacing the royal yacht.
CO2 monitors were installed instead, but reviewers say they only provide information on where more airflow is needed, without improving the flow itself.
Masks have been worn in common areas of schools since November, to fight against the rise of Omicron. Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, also recommends their return to classrooms, a measure lifted on so-called “freedom day” last July.
“The Prime Minister and I have made it clear that education is our number one priority,” he said. “These measures will strengthen our support schools as we do everything in our power to minimize disruption.”
In addition, Ofsted inspectors, who are also heads of establishments and colleges, will not be asked to carry out inspections, so that they can “focus on their leadership responsibilities at this critical time”.
Labor accuses the government of failing to issue vaccines to those over 12, 15 weeks after their approval, leaving nearly 2 million young people aged 12 to 17 unvaccinated.
Meanwhile, all public sector leaders have been ordered to make contingency plans for a quarter of the staff on work stoppage as Omicron continues to sweep the country.
Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, will chair “regular meetings” with ministers to ensure “robust” plans are in place to deal with staff absences.
Public sector bosses have been asked to test the plans “against worst-case scenarios of 10 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent absence from the workforce,” the department said.
Sajid Javid warned on Saturday that the country must learn to live with Covid, writing in the Daily mail that “restrictions on our freedom must be an absolute last resort”.