Boris Johnson signalled that England’s strict lockdown will continue for at least another five weeks, as he warned that 8 March was the earliest date on which schoolchildren could return to the classroom.
When schools were closed to most pupils earlier this month, the prime minister said it would initially be until after the February half-term.
But he announced to MPs on Wednesday that only by the middle of next month would the government have a clearer idea of the impact of the vaccine on the pandemic.
“The first sign of normality starting to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms,” Johnson said.
Unions warned that setting a target date of 8 March for schools to return could create false hope, with Mary Bousted from the National Education Union cautioning: “The prime minister may now be immune to the embarrassment of U-turns, but school leaders, teachers and support staff, not to mention families and students, are utterly exhausted by them.”
Speaking after confirming plans to require British citizens returning from high-risk countries to quarantine, the prime minister promised that in the week of 22 February the government would set out a “gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way”.
“By then we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, using data from the UK but also other nations such as Israel. We will know how successful the current restrictions have been in driving down infections,” Johnson said.
“We will also know how many people are still in hospital with Covid, which we simply can’t predict with certainty today. So we will then be in a better position to chart a course out of lockdown without risking a further surge that would overwhelm the NHS.”
Another 1,725 people were reported on Wednesday to have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, bringing the total death toll by that measure to 101,887. 25,308 new infections were identified, down 13,597 on the same day last week.
The government is expected to publish a “roadmap,” as it did during last year’s lockdown, setting out its criteria for reopening different sectors.
The prime minister said the 8 March date was based on the thinking that if the NHS is successful in vaccinating the four most vulnerable groups by 15 February, these people will by then have had three weeks to develop immunity.
He said he hoped “all schools will go back” on 8 March, suggesting the government may have moved away from a regional approach to lifting restrictions. “That’s the earliest we can do it, and it depends on lots of things going right,” he said.
Johnson expressed sympathy “for parents and for carers who’ve spent so many months not only home schooling but meeting the myriad needs of their children from breakfast to bedtime”.
He announced £300m in extra government funding for catchup teaching for children who have fallen behind, and promised families would continue to receive free school meals support until March.
That is not expected to include food vouchers being issued during half-term, however. Instead, parents are expected to have to rely on the separate Covid winter grant scheme.
Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “Given previous experience, the announcement of arbitrary dates for schools to reopen to all pupils can be profoundly unhelpful to parents and to those working in schools.
“However, a clear plan for how schools will be fully reopened whenever the lockdown restrictions are lifted remains a key question which the government must now work urgently and openly with the profession to address.”
The closure of schools across England was announced on 4 January alongside the lockdown, just a day after they had been allowed to open across most of the country.
Johnson made the latest schools announcement as part of a Covid update to the House of Commons, a day after official figures confirmed that more than 100,000 people have now died with the virus in the UK.
Challenged at Wednesday’s Downing Street press conference about whether he had made mistakes in his handling of the pandemic, the prime minister said: “Of course I take full responsibility for everything.”
But he added: “What I would say humbly and respectfully to those who make criticisms of what the government and what our colleagues have been trying to do is that in situations like this, where you have such very, very brutal and difficult dilemmas there are no easy answers, and very often there are no good answers at all.”
He said there would be a “full inquiry” into the pandemic; but he did not believe the time was right for that now, with the country still fighting to control the virus.
Chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, stressed the continued prevalence of the virus, underlining the fact that cases and hospitalisations remain extremely high.
The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that the best way of honouring the memory of those who had died from Covid was to “persevere against this virus with ever greater resolve”.
He announced that 6.8 million people have now been vaccinated: 13% of the adult population.
Johnson also set out plans for passengers from the countries already facing the toughest travel restrictions to the UK to have to quarantine in government-provided accommodation at their own expense. “They will be met at the airport and transferred into quarantine,” he said.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, had earlier called for all teachers and school support staff to be vaccinated during the February half-term, to help expedite the reopening of schools.