The Prime Minister will set out the ‘next steps’ in the Government’s Covid-19 response with an address to the nation tonight at 8pm, with Parliament being recalled on Wednesday.
MailOnline understands England is facing blanket restrictions similar to those imposed during the first lockdown last spring, with fears they will have to last for months until the most vulnerable are vaccinated.
It is thought that schools will be told to remain shut to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers in the coming weeks.
Such a move will plunge the school year into chaos and will raise questions over whether exams planned for 2021 will be able to go ahead.
Boris Johnson is widely expected to announce that schools across England will remain closed in the coming weeks as part of a new national lockdown
The Government has been under growing pressure to keep a majority of pupils out of the classroom since it announced last week that primary schools in numerous hotspot areas would be told to stay closed at the start of January.
Ministers also pushed back the start of term for the bulk of secondary school pupils by a week, meaning they were set to return on January 18 rather than January 11 – when only Years 11 and 13 preparing for exams were due to go back.
Mr Johnson said this morning that the argument for keeping schools open was ‘powerful’.
The Prime Minister has also insisted that schools are safe and that closing primaries would be a ‘last resort’.
But education unions have warned that bringing all pupils back to school could fuel the pandemic and put teachers at ‘serious risk’ of falling ill.
A joint statement from unions representing school staff and head teachers blasted the Government’s ‘chaotic’ handling of the reopening of schools and said it had caused confusion for parents and staff.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said before the Prime Minister’s address to the nation that any lockdown had to include the closure of schools.
He tweeted: ‘We must introduce a national lockdown now. Tragically, that must mean school closures.
‘We need a simple contract between the British people: the country goes into lockdown, the Government delivers the vaccine. Stay at home, protect the NHS, vaccinate Britain.’
Mr Johnson’s address to the nation came hours after Nicola Sturgeon announced that schools in Scotland will remain closed for all of January as part of a new lockdown north of the border.
Ms Sturgeon said she hoped schools in Scotland would be able to return on February 1.
The delayed reopening of classrooms is likely to wreak havoc with the school year and raises questions about whether exams will go ahead as currently envisaged.
The Government has previously been adamant that exams will be sat in 2021 after the closure of schools meant they had to be scrapped last year.
Ministers said in October that they were working with exam regulator Ofqual to put plans in place for tests to go ahead.
They said exams would be pushed back by three weeks, starting after the May bank holiday half term and finishing on July 2.
A lengthy closure of schools in the coming weeks will inevitably trigger calls for a rethink over the exams timetable.
Mr Johnson said this morning that the risk posed by coronavirus to teachers was no greater than to anyone else.
He said: ‘The risk to teachers, and of course we will do everything we can to protect teachers, but the risk to teachers is no greater than it is to anyone else.
‘The reasons for wanting to keep schools open I think are very, very powerful.’
Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt had called for the closure of schools ‘right away’ as he warned that the pressures facing hospitals are ‘off-the-scale worse’ than previous winter crises.
Early findings from a small study carried out in November suggested that the proportion of school children and teachers with coronavirus mirrors the proportion in the local community.
The study of 105 schools, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last month, found that 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff overall tested positive for current infection – similar to the 1.2 per cent reported in the community.
But no data or major study has been published since the emergence of a new, more infectious, strain of coronavirus.
The NAHT school leaders’ union has called on the Government to disclose scientific evidence regarding the impact of the new Covid-19 variant on schools.
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: ‘NAHT began legal proceedings last Friday to force the government to reveal the scientific data it is withholding that underpin its assertions that schools are safe.
‘We remain unconvinced, and we await the Government’s reply, which is due at 4pm today.’
The NAHT – alongside the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, GMB, Unison and Unite – had earlier called for a move to remote learning for most pupils amid safety concerns.
Ministers have faced union fury over the Government’s chaotic plans for the reopening of schools in January
Pupils across England are now facing the prospect of many weeks of remote learning as schools are told to stay shut
All staff continuing to work in schools with vulnerable pupils and children of key workers should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations, the coalition of unions argued.
They said in a joint statement: ‘Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.’
The NEU had already advised its members that it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday as schools in a number of non-hotspot areas said they intended to stay shut, against the Government’s original orders.
Gildersome Primary School in Leeds, which is in Tier 3, has been forced to shut to most children indefinitely after 16 staff signed a letter saying they are ‘exercising their right not to teach full classes’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that it is ‘clear that the proportion of teachers who catch coronavirus is no higher than the rest of the population’.
He added: ‘So there is clear public health advice behind the position that we have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people’s long-term health.’