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UK govt under pressure over schools’ closure

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson carries Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID 19 vaccines for distribution during a visit to Barnet FC’s ground at The Hive, north London, which is being used as a coronavirus vaccination center yesterday.-AFP

LONDON: The UK government faced growing pressure yesterday to detail a strategy to reopen schools in England, following a backlash from lawmakers about reports they could remain closed for months. A dozen MPs from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives have warned publicly that pupils risk becoming the pandemic’s “forgotten victims” and demand schools fully reopen sooner. The group-which includes former Cabinet minister Esther McVey and Graham Brady, head of an influential committee of Conservative lawmakers-backed a parents’ pressure group campaign on the issue.

“We need to get our children learning again – with clarity from @educationgovuk and an education route map out of the coronavirus,” Conservative MP Rob Halfon, chairman of parliament’s watchdog education committee, said on Twitter. “The engine of government should be directed towards opening our schools. We face an epidemic of educational poverty and mental health otherwise.” However, Halfon’s bid to force a government statement on the issue in parliament yesterday failed after House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle opted against selecting his urgent question on the issue.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is widely expected to address the matter later this week, and confirm that students will not return to classrooms after the mid-February half-term break as ministers had once hoped. Johnson closed schools to all but the children of key workers this month as COVID-19 infections surged across the country, largely due to the emergence of a more contagious virus variant in recent months.

Quarantine hotels
The dramatic spike in cases through December has led to unprecedented levels of hospitalizations and fatalities from coronavirus, with Britain now approaching 100,000 deaths during the pandemic. Although the number of new cases has begun to fall this month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock declined Sunday to guarantee schools would be back by Easter in early April, noting that infection rates would need to come down further. The UK government sets education policy in England. The sector is handled by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where schools have also been shut.

Meanwhile, the government is also being urged to beef up its borders policy amid fears other new virus strains could be imported. Ministers have for weeks been mulling whether to require all incoming travellers to isolate in hotels, and a decision is expected within days. Earlier this month, the UK scrapped its “travel corridors” from countries with lower caseloads following the emergence of new variants, and now asks arrivals to show negative Covid-19 tests and then self-isolate. But following calls for even stricter curbs, senior ministers are on Tuesday due to discuss requiring arriving travellers to pay to quarantine at a designated hotel to ensure they are following the self-isolation rules.

It comes as border rules were being tightened around the world. The United States yesterday set to reimpose a ban on most non-US citizens who have been in Britain, Brazil, Ireland and much of Europe from visiting, as well as adding South Africa to the list. – AFP


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