Nicola Sturgeon has announced a phased return to school for Scotland’s youngest children, with nurseries and all primary pupils from P1 to P3 planned to be back in the classroom from 22 February.
Explaining that adults would have to live with restrictions for longer in order to prioritise children’s return to education, Sturgeon confirmed that the current lockdown – with its stay-at-home message – would remain in place until the end of the month, although she added she was “optimistic” that there could be some easing from the beginning of March.
Sturgeon told MSPs that, subject to a final review in a fortnight, there would be a full-time return to early learning and childcare settings as well as a full-time return for primary school pupils in years one, two and three, from 22 February.
There will also be a very limited return for senior pupils to allow in-school practical work necessary for the completion of national qualification courses.
But Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the nation’s largest teaching union, said that “any school return remains contingent upon continued progress on community suppression of the virus” and added he was “surprised” that the first minister had not mentioned the need for social distancing amongst younger pupils.
Schools and nurseries have been closed to the vast majority of children across Scotland since the Christmas holidays. Some children in Wales are expected to return on the same date, while in England and Northern Ireland schools will reopen until 8 March at the earliest.
Making her announcement to the Holyrood chamber, the first minister said: “To get the virus more under control, and so that we can prioritise every bit of headroom we create to get children back to school, we must all stay at home except for permitted, essential purposes for a bit longer – at least until the end of this month”.
She added that teachers and other school and nursery staff would be offered at-home testing twice a week, along with all senior school pupils, and stressed that the phased return was dependent on the virus continuing to be suppressed.
The announcement will put pressure on Downing Street to answer calls from Conservative MPs as to why England is operating on a slower timetable.
Tory MP William Wragg, who chairs the constitutional affairs committee said the government should think again. “It’s welcome news to the millions of school children and their parents that the prime minister has confirmed that schools will be the first to open after lockdown,” he said.
“But now that Scotland has indicated that schools are likely to return from 22 February, I’m wondering what’s holding us back from opening them up in England too?”
Eight new Conservative MPs, including the former FCO minister Harriet Baldwin and former sports minister Tracey Crouch, have added their support to a call from lobby group UsForThem which demands the government publish a cost-benefit analysis on continued school closures. The demand has now been signed by 28 Tory MPs.
Sturgeon also announced that Scotland would introduce a “managed quarantine” policy for people arriving directly into the country, “regardless of which country they have come from”.
She added that this was a “much more comprehensive” system than proposed by the government in Westminster – where hotel quarantine will be imposed only on those returning from specific countries – and urged the UK government to adopt a similar approach.
Confirming a further 758 people in Scotland had tested positive for Covid-19 over the past 24 hours – 7.4% of the total number of tests carried out – Sturgeon said that 73% of new cases involved the Kent variant, and that Public Health Scotland was looking at evidence that this variant leads to an increased risk of hospitalisation.
She added that there had been five cases of the South African variant in Scotland, all of which were linked to travel, with no evidence of community transmission.
She also confirmed that 610,778 Scots had received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, an increase of 34,881 from Monday’s figure, and said Scotland was on track to vaccinate all over-70s by mid-February.