Professor Chris Whitty has reportedly clashed with Boris Johnson over his plans to send 10 million pupils and staff back to school on March 8.
According to The Guardian, England’s chief medical officer is said to be “very unhappy” with the prime minister’s “big bang” reopening of schools in England, and has been reluctant to publicly support the move in recent days.
Education sources told the paper that senior policymakers and ministers had urged Whitty to get behind the plan to reopen schools, but he has not yet made any endorsement to be included in Monday’s announcement.
Whitty is instead expected to offer only “lukewarm” support to the announcement and it is anticipated he will defer to politicians to make the final judgement on reopening plans.
Downing Street has robustly denied reports of any row between Johnson and Whitty, describing them as “categorically untrue”.
A spokesperson told The Guardian: “We know schools, parents and pupils need clarity on plans as soon as possible, which is why we have committed to providing two weeks’ notice for them to prepare… Pupils will return from 8 March at the earliest.”
Boris Johnson is set to unveil his roadmap for easing England’s lockdown restrictions on Monday, with plans for schools expected to be at the forefront of the announcement.
Nine education unions released a joint statement on Friday urging the government to adopt a phased approach to school reopening plans as opposed to a mass return, saying they were becoming “increasingly concerned” about the proposed move.
“This would seem a reckless course of action. It could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown,” it warns.
The joint statement is from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the NAHT school leaders’ union, the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, the National Governance Association (NGA), the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), Unison, Unite and GMB.
The unions and professional bodies are calling on the prime minister to only commit to reopening schools on March 8 if the scientific evidence is “absolutely clear that it is safe” to admit more pupils.
They warn that the science around the role schools play in the overall rate of transmission is “uncertain”.
On Monday, Johnson said no decisions had been made on whether year groups across schools in England will return together, or whether primaries and secondaries could be staggered.