In England, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, outlined some of the reasoning behind the government’s plans for reopening a proportion of primary schools.
The government has faced criticism on Wednesday evening for the plan and was left red-faced when the London borough of Redbridge, which has the seventh highest case rate in England, was left off the list and then later added.
Williamson told Sky News:
The work that was done with the Department of Health, who identified areas where it was either a very high rate or, using their latest data, were seeing very sharp increases in the number of cases or equally the pressures on hospitals in that area and the clinical needs.
These were all the considerations that were taken into account but what I want to say, and this will come as no surprise to you whatsoever, I want to see schools, any school, that’s closed for those first two weeks, opening at the earliest possible opportunity.
Asked whether he apologised to parents, teachers and children for the notice given for the measures, Williamson said:
I think we all recognise that if we go back a few weeks where there was no new variant of Covid, none of us would have been expecting us to be having to take the actions, whether it’s in regards to schools, whether it’s in regards to tier 4 moves that the government has had to make, but it’s the government that’s having to respond at incredible pace to a global pandemic and then a new variant of that virus.
France will not fail in its Covid-19 vaccination campaign, its European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said on Thursday, after coming under fire for the slow start of its roll-out compared with its European neighbours.
Beaune told France’s LCI television that the vaccination campaign was just beginning in the country.
France, which is primarily targeting the most vulnerable people in nursing homes for the first phase of the campaign, administered doses to about 140 people on Wednesday.
That was well below the 42,000 who received shots in Germany, for instance.
Meanwhile, France has also announced it would deploy 100,000 police and gendarmes to clamp down on parties, gatherings and the traditional torching of vehicles on 31 December.
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said the officers would also be strictly enforcing the national 8pm to 6am curfew as part of what he described as a “fight against unauthorised public gatherings and the phenomenon of urban violence”.
The British education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has told BBC Breakfast he was confident schools in England will be ready to test pupils returning to the classrooms from 11 January.
He said: “There’s absolutely no reason that schools won’t be ready.”
He said £78m of additional funding, equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and support from the military would help them get mass testing programmes set up.
We really want to hold their hands, support them, help them. We’re asking everyone right across the country to do pretty extraordinary things at the moment.
How much they (children) miss out by not being in schools, that’s why we’re taking these extraordinary actions because it’s always best to have children in school if it’s possible to do so.
He also said he wanted school closures to be “as short as possible”.
But he said: “We are having to take these steps on public health advice. I would hope that any closures will be short.”
Japan considering declaring a state of emergency as Covid-19 cases surge
New coronavirus infections in Tokyo hit a record high of more than 1,300 on Thursday raising fears of an explosion in cases, local media reported.
The Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has urged people to celebrate New Year quietly, and avoid non-essential outings, amid the twin crises.
Japan has been battling a third wave of Covid-19 infections in recent weeks and on Monday started barring the entry of non-resident foreign nationals after detecting variants of the virus from Britain and South Africa.
The economy minister, Yasutoshi Nishimura, said on Wednesday the government may have to consider declaring a state of emergency if the number the Covid-19 cases grows.
Czech Republic reports 16,939 Covid-19 cases, highest number to date
The Czech Republic reported a record high 16,939 daily cases of Covid-19 for the past 24 hours, the health ministry said on Thursday.
The central European country of 10.7 million people has been one of the hardest hit in the region, with its total number of detected cases reaching 718,661, and 11,580 deaths, Reuters reports.
A return to school in Northern Ireland after the Christmas holidays has been delayed by a week due to spiralling Covid-19 infection rates.
For years 8 to 11 in secondary schools, remote learning will continue throughout January, the education minister, Peter Weir, announced.
Childcare settings, including those attached to schools, pre-school facilities, nurseries and special schools, will open as usual next week.
Schools will also accommodate vulnerable children and those of key workers next week.
The common aim has been to keep schools safe, prioritise children’s education and ensure any impact on overall transmission is as low as possible, while accepting that schools reopening as normal is not sustainable.
Government criticised over schools plan for having ‘no logic’
London council leaders have criticised the government’s list of areas where primary schools will not open to pupils next week as having “no logic”.
Around a million primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to lessons as planned next week, while the expected staggered reopening of secondary schools in England will also be delayed.
But the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said he was “urgently seeking clarification as to why schools in some London boroughs have been chosen to stay open” while others “just down the road won’t”.
Other critics included Danny Thorpe, leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, which was threatened with legal action by the government earlier this month after issuing advice to schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term.
He said in a statement: “In a case-by-case comparison, there appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together.”
London had been treated as “one area” throughout the pandemic, he said, adding: “To now fragment the capital and ignore that residents are not bound by invisible borders is a massive step backwards in the boroughs’ combined efforts to fight the virus.”
Richard Watts, leader of Islington council in north London, said it was “deeply frustrating” that the government made this announcement at the last minute, just days before the start of term, weeks after it was clear coronavirus cases were surging in London.
A list of 50 areas where it is expected that some primary schools will not open as planned to all pupils next week was published by the Department for Education (DfE) and featured places in London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
Children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters will still be able to attend lessons in primary and secondary schools.