The UK government plans to keep schools open until the Christmas holidays despite the detection of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in the country, a minister said on Wednesday.
When asked whether schools will be kept open, Children’s Minister Will Quince told the Education Committee of the House of Commons, “That is certainly our plan and we want to see schools stay open.”
Quince also said it was “deeply regrettable” that some schools had cancelled the traditional nativity plays, which he said were “one of the loveliest things.”
He acknowledged that there may be “a higher prevalence of transmission” in some areas. “So I think, ultimately, on balance, it comes down to trusting schools and headteachers and directors of public health.”
His comments came after a union official called on schools to cancel mass gatherings over Christmas amid staff shortages caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.
Justin McCamphill, the NASUWT teaching union’s national official for Northern Ireland, said the government may need to consider a circuit-breaker closure of schools to stop the spread of the virus.
But Downing Street said on Tuesday that there was no guidance to schools to suggest they should cancel nativity plays.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “We know how important education has been for our children and that includes all aspects of our schooling. Schools rightly will need to consider their individual needs but there is no guidance to that end.”
At a press conference on Tuesday evening, Johnson said the government does not want people to cancel Christmas parties or nativity plays.
“We don’t want people to cancel such events. We think that overwhelmingly the best thing for kids is to be in school, as I’ve said many times throughout this pandemic,” he said.
“What we are doing is trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach to the particular risk that seems to be posed by Omicron, or certainly is posed by Omicron, focused in particular on measures at the borders.”
Masks are now being recommended in communal areas of England’s secondary schools and colleges following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative chairman of the Education Committee, questioned why schools are facing tougher safety measures than other settings.
He said he did not understand why “we allow people to go to nightclubs and bars, and yet schools are closing down nativity plays or putting them online.”
Responding to the concerns, Quince said: “We are taking a cautionary approach given what we don’t know at the moment about the new variant. But, ultimately, it’s all about keeping school and educational settings open.”
PA contributed to this report.