Gavin Williamson warns Britain faces ‘enormous battle’ to keep secondary schools open in January

Britain faces an ‘enormous battle’ to keep secondary schools open in January amid the rapid spread of a new Covid variant, Gavin Williamson has reportedly warned colleagues.

The Education Secretary is facing mounting pressure from experts to reconsider school closures in January, amid concern that the new Covid strain is more easily spread among children.

The Government currently plans to stagger the return of school children in January.

Under current proposals, GCSE and A-Level students in England are set to return as normal in January, with other year groups taking online lessons for a week before returning to the classroom.

But the plans could now change, with Mr Williamson set to hold a crunch meeting with education chiefs on Monday, according to the Telegraph.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously refused to rule out school closures next term, insisting ‘everything is under review’ when asked.

The Education Secretary is facing mounting pressure from experts to reconsider school closures (pictured: School children wear face masks, library image) in January, amid concern that the new strain is more easily spread among children

The Education Secretary is facing mounting pressure from experts to reconsider school closures (pictured: School children wear face masks, library image) in January, amid concern that the new strain is more easily spread among children

Mr Williamson is set to hold a crunch meeting with education chiefs on Monday, according to the Telegraph

Mr Williamson is set to hold a crunch meeting with education chiefs on Monday, according to the Telegraph 

Government announces £100million replacement for Erasmus scheme 

More than £100 million will be spent on the post-Brexit replacement of the Erasmus exchange programme for UK students next year, it has been announced.

The Department of Education (DfE) said the Turing scheme will provide funding for around 35,000 students to go on placements around the world from September.

The DfE said the scheme named after Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing will cost £100 million in 2021/22 but that funding for subsequent academic years will be set out in future spending reviews.

The Government’s decision to end involvement in the European Union scheme has proved controversial, particularly as Boris Johnson previously said Brexit did not threaten participation. 

The DfE said the new scheme will be targeted at students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Around 35,000 British students annually are said to study in the Erasmus scheme, which the UK joined in 1987 to allow students to study and work across Europe. 

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It comes after scientist this week warned that the highly infectious mutant strain of coronavirus found in Kent and sweeping its way across the country could be more likely to affect children.

Modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the new virus strain is 56 per cent per cent more infectious – though not considered to be any more deadly.

Researchers said there is ‘some evidence that the increase may be particularly marked in children’.

The study found that even if another national lockdown was implemented, it would be ‘unlikely’ to reduce the county’s R rate to below one unless schools and universities were also closed.

Meanwhile, one in 85 Covid cases in England is currently thought to be the new strain, with two-thirds of cases in the south-east likely to be the new variant, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Separate ONS figures meanwhile show coronavirus is most rampant among secondary schoolchildren.

Those in Year 7 to Year 11 are seeing the highest rates of infection among the entire population.

Scientists hope to learn much more over the next two weeks about how quickly the variant spreads among children, Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist of Imperial College London and member of No10’s advisory group NERVTAG, said.

Schools had been due for a full return on January 4, but Mr Gavin Williamson later announced plans for a staggered return.

Under current plans, GCSE and A-Level students, as well as vocational pupils and all primary schools, will return as normal on January 4.

A week of testing will take place during this period.

Other year groups will take online lessons, before returning to the classroom on January 11.

Schools in Scotland and Wales will also have a staggered return, while schools in Northern Ireland will return as usual in January. 

Modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the new virus strain is 56 per cent per cent more infectious - though not considered to be any more deadly

Modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the new virus strain is 56 per cent per cent more infectious – though not considered to be any more deadly

Meanwhile, up to 11million lateral flow tests will be available to schools and colleges from January 4, providing capacity for up to 5.5million children and young people to be tested in the new year, it was revealed last week.

The Armed Forces will be drafted into help the mass-testing effort. 

But both Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock have suggested plans could change depending on the situation in January.

When asked about school closures last week, Mr Johnson said: ‘Obviously we want if we possibly can to get schools back in a staggered way in January in the way we have set out, but the common sense thing to do is follow the path of the pandemic and keep things under constant review.

‘But it is very important to get kids and keep kids in education as much as you possibly can.’

Meanwhile, Britain’s largest teaching union last week demanded classes be moved online for two weeks after Christmas to give school staff the chance to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

The National Education Union (NEU)called on the Government to cancel face-to-face lessons for a fortnight at the beginning of the new term – with online learning to continue until January 18.

Union chiefs say the switch to online lessons, for all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, will help reduce cases amongst students.

They have also demanded that a mass-testing programme, which has already been promised by ministers, be fully functional before students return to school.

Super-infectious mutant strain of coronavirus that was found in Kent is ‘more likely to affect children’, claims study 

The highly infectious mutant strain of coronavirus found in Kent could be more likely to affect children, scientists have warned.

Modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the new virus strain is 56 per cent per cent more infectious. 

Even if another national lockdown was implemented, it would be ‘unlikely’ to reduce the R to below one unless schools and universities were also closed, their study found.

But researchers do not believe the new strain is more deadly or causes any more severe disease in either adults or children. 

Researchers said there is ‘some evidence that the increase may be particularly marked in children’. 

The new variant will lead to a wave of coronavirus cases and deaths that will peak in spring 2021 for London, the South East and east of England, they said.

They said that cases and deaths will peak in summer 2021 for the rest of the country.

Schools had been due to return on January 4 but Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has ordered a week of testing and most students will return on January 11.

Only GCSE and A-level students, vulnerable children and the children of critical workers will return on time.

Coronavirus is most rampant among secondary schoolchildren, according to separate figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Those in Year 7 to Year 11 are seeing the highest rates of infection among the entire population.

Scientists hope to learn much more over the next two weeks about how quickly the variant spreads among children, Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist of Imperial College London and member of No10’s advisory group NERVTAG, said.

Children have throughout the coronavirus pandemic constituted far fewer cases than for other respiratory diseases, including flu. 

The leading theory for this is due to how the coronavirus enters human cells, via a receptor called ACE2 which is found on many cells in the upper respiratory tract.  

As a result, Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London and a NERVTAG member, explained this made adults ‘easy targets’ compared to children.

This is because the amount of ACE2 a person expresses naturally and steadily increases over time, with young children having very little.  

‘I think on the topic of children we’ve got to be careful about what we say. We are not saying this is a virus that specifically attacks children or is any more specific in its ability to infect children,’ she said.

‘But we know that SARS-CoV-2 as it emerged as a virus was not as efficient at infecting children as it was adults.

‘The previous virus had a harder time binding ACE2 and getting into cells and therefore adults, which have abundant ACE2 in their nose and throat, were the easy targets and children were difficult to infect. 

‘The newer virus has an easier time doing that and children are therefore equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults. 

‘Given their mixing patterns you would expect to see more children being infected. 

‘It’s not because the virus is specifically targeting children, but that it is now less inhibited.’ 

Professor Ferguson added that if this hypothesis is found to be true it may explain a ‘significant proportion’ of the transmission increase.

Speaking a virtual media briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre, he said: ‘There is a hint that it is has a higher propensity to infect children. 

‘That may perhaps explain some of the differences but we haven’t established any sort of causality.’ 

The new strain of the virus, which experts fear is more contagious, prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the UK, where it first emerged.

But cases of the new variant have still been reported worldwide: on Friday, Japan confirmed five infections in passengers from the UK, while cases have also been reported in Denmark, Lebanon, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.

South Africa has detected a similar mutation in some infected people, but on Friday denied British claims its strain was more infectious or dangerous than the one originating in the UK.

 

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