A government minister today admitted England’s primary schools might not all open on June 1 as doubt mounts over the deadline.
Robert Buckland confessed the approach may not be “uniform” across England – a sign the government’s determination may be starting to crack.
And he said while the government is “working towards” a June 1 date, the safety of children is “paramount” and local leaders will have the final say.
He added: “I’m not going to sit here and pretend that suddenly on June 1 everything will be uniform.”
Schools were told to bring back year R, 1 and 6 pupils back to class from June 1 “at the earliest”, with other primary years returning later in June.
But those plans were hurled into doubt by a mass revolt from unions and councils, including Tory-run Solihull, who say June 1 is too soon and they want to be sure kids will be safe.
England’s Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser then used a No10 press conference last night to heap further doubt on the June 1 target date.
Dame Angela McLean said a full test, track and trace programme must be in place first to monitor the virus. An NHS app – which is the heart of the programme – has been delayed until up to mid-June.
Dame Angela said: “Scientists have been very clear in our advice that changes to lockdown as we modelled them need a highly effective track, trace and isolate system to be in place.
“And we’re also very clear that any change to the social distancing measures should be based upon observed levels of incidence, in places that there’s been any change, not on a fixed date.”
As a backlash mounted yesterday, No10 stressed the date had always been June 1 “at the earliest” and schools would only return when safe.
And today Mr Buckland told BBC Breakfast: “I don’t think any of us want to put either children or our dedicated teaching staff in any danger at all, and the question of being safe is clearly paramount.
“So we’re all working towards June 1, planning for that return, but I accept the point that there may well be issues from employers that need to be addressed which might not mean we’ll see a uniform approach on June 1.
“But I know everybody’s working very hard to resolve the concerns and to make sure that all views are heard properly.”
Asked directly if the government would change the date he said June 1 “was an important date for everybody to work towards and plan towards” but he “understands” the concerns from the sector.
He added: “These conversations are ongoing.”
Asked a second time directly if some parts of England won’t reopen schools from June 1 he said: “It really depends upon the views of employers.
“A lot of councils are direct employers of their teaching staff. Their views are clearly very important.
“I’m not going to sit here and pretend that suddenly on June 1 everything will be uniform. I don’t know.”
The centre of the row is the government’s ‘test and trace’ programme which will quickly track down any new outrbeaks of the virus.
Some 21,000 human contact tracers, over the 18,000 target, have already been recruited.
But a companion NHS app which would do most of the work – using Bluetooth to work out who a patient has had contact with – has been delayed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock had said it would launch in mid-May but Downing Street admitted it’s now only due in “the coming weeks”.
Mr Buckland today admitted the tracing system will develop “over the next several weeks” and “evolve” – but not be completely ready by June 1.
He said: “I’m hoping we’ll see the tracing system start to work by that time.
“I think it won’t necessarily be as widespread and as full blown as we’d like.
“I think that will develop over the next several weeks, over the next month or so.”
The government’s scientific advisors SAGE are due to meet tomorrow where they will receive an update on the test, track and trace programme.
Scientific advisor Dame Angela McLean last night said: “We’re getting a full update on Thursday on exactly what’s going to be in place and when.
“So I’m going to wait to see what I get told on Thursday about what’s going to be in place by when.”
Calderdale Council yesterday became the latest Labour-led council in the north of England to advise its schools against a wider reopening from June 1, following similar actions from Bury, Liverpool and Hartlepool.
Sefton Council will suggest schools reopen from June 15 to allow time for an “appropriate risk assessment”.
A number of local authorities in England have acknowledged safety concerns among parents and teachers over the date, but they have not urged all their schools to reject the proposed time frame.
Leaders of Birmingham City Council have sent a letter to parents and school staff saying that they will only support schools opening to more pupils “when it is safe to do so”.
Solihull Council has warned that some school places may not be ready for the first week of June.
It comes despite the British Medical Association today saying schools should reopen “as soon as it is safe to do so”, an apparent shift from previous advice.
The BMA’s public health medicine committee chairman Dr Peter English said there was “growing evidence” that the risk to children from coronavirus is “extremely small” – but cautioned there is “no united view yet” on whether children can spread it.
The doctors’ union previously said the Government should not consider reopening schools in England until the case numbers are “much lower”.
A poll from teachers’ union NASUWT suggested that only 5% of teachers think it will be safe for more pupils to return to school next month.
In a letter to the Education Secretary, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the union remains “unconvinced” that wider reopening of schools from June 1 is “appropriate or practicable”.
The survey, of nearly 29,000 NASUWT members across England, found that around nine in 10 teachers believe that social distancing will be impossible, or will present major issues and a similar proportion are not confident that the proposed measures will protect their health or the health of pupils.
It also found that 87% of teachers believe that PPE is essential to protect staff against the virus.
Dr Roach said: “The results of our survey underscore the fact that the Government has thus far failed to win the trust and confidence of teachers about the safety of reopening schools.
“It is now imperative that the Government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.”