All schools in England are to reopen from Monday despite a deadly Covid variant from Brazil being found in the UK.
Boris Johnson today said he was “confident” he could stick to his plan to reopen classrooms from March 8 despite the news.
He told reporters: “I think we are going at the right pace, education is the priority.
“Getting all schools open on March 8 is something that we have set our hearts on for a long time and I am confident we will be ready.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesman today confirmed all schools were still on course to reopen as planned, including in South Gloucestershire, where two cases of the P.1 variant were found and surge testing is taking place.
Mr Johnson’s roadmap pledges to open all primary schools to all year groups on Monday, followed by secondary schools staggered through the week.
That is because secondary pupils must first have a rapid lateral flow test before returning to the classroom. The first three tests will be done at schools, followed by two per week done from home.
The spokesman said: “Schools will reopen on March 8 as we set out in the roadmap. We’ve deployed surge testing now in South Gloucestershire to ensure we can identify and isolate any more cases of this variant.”
He added: “You’ve got what we’ve said about the importance of children going back to school… Schools will reopen next week on March 8 and it’s important we get kids back.”
Asked if that applies to South Gloucestershire he replied: “It applies to the whole of England.”
A South Gloucestershire Council spokesperson later confirmed there was no change to the plan to reopen schools, saying: “As a Council we are committed to the return of our Children and Young People and are working with school leaders to ensure this is undertaken safely.”
It came as a desperate race was launched to find a mystery Brit with the P.1 mutant strain who did not complete their test details online – so officials have no idea who or where they are.
The government says “every effort is underway” to find the person – who may not have known they were positive or been in isolation. Their test was processed more than two weeks ago, on January 14, but the variant was only identified on Friday.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman insisted it was “very rare” for details not to be filled in.
The case of the P.1 variant is one of six that were detected on or around Friday – three in England, and three in Scotland.
The other two cases in England were in South Gloucestershire – where surge testing has been launched today in five postcode sectors, BS32 0, BS32 8, BS32 9, BS34 5 and BS34 6.
One of those two cases returned from Sao Paulo via Zurich on February 10 and the other is a member of their household.
P.1 has been deemed a ‘variant of concern’ because it shares important mutations with the South Africa variant – including E484K and N501Y.
Scientists believe those mutations may make it respond less well to the vaccine, though there is no data on this yet.
It is also possible it may spread more easily than other variants of coronavirus, like the Kent variant which has become dominant in the UK.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said surge testing in south Gloucestershire was a “precautionary measure” after a handful of cases of the P.1 variant, first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus, were confirmed in Britain.
Asked if the news would impact on the reopening of schools in Gloucestershire, Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast: “It’s really a precautionary measure because the particular family in question actually followed the rules very, very closely.
“But it’s an important precautionary measure. Schools have had 50 million lateral flow tests delivered, they have already done about three million tests, even before we set out the roadmap to reopening by March 8.
“Teachers will be tested twice a week, even in secondary schools and colleges will be tested twice a week. So there’s a big infrastructure of testing going into schools.”
Free tests will also be provided to families with school-age children, regardless of whether anyone has symptoms. Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins told the BBC: “Doing these tests regularly, and getting used to them as part of our lives as the restrictions ease, will reduce transmission in the community and in schools.”