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The Government is coming under increasing pressure to reverse its decision to reopen schools in January as Covid-19 cases continue to rise.

Councils in London were threatened with legal action from the Government before Christmas for writing to schools asking them to close, but as Covid-19 cases continue to rise at an alarming rate, council leaders are calling for urgent action.

Conservative London Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has this week also called for schools to stay closed and said that doing so “gives us a fighting chance” against the virus.

Mr Bailey said: “We must make the most of the Christmas break to defeat Covid-19 where we can.

“I am proposing a two-week circuit-breaker for schools. During this time we can stop our children mixing and get our teachers tested.

“This gives us a fighting chance against the virus without causing maximum disruption.”

Cllr Jas Athwal, Labour leader of Redbridge Council, told Radio 4’s Today programme that “confusion” from the Government “has to stop” and that a “firebreak” was needed in schools to stop the spread of the virus.

Mr Athwal said: “We need to have an urgent firebreak. I think the Government needs to look at the wisdom of reopening schools in January.”

Health experts are warning that keeping schools closed is key to stopping the spread of the new strain of Covid-19, which is transmitted more easily.

Both the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and SAGE have advised the Government that schools should remain closed throughout January and that stricter lockdown measures are needed to contain the current wave of the pandemic.

But ministers are said to be split on the issue, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock among those who are in support of keeping schools closed while Education Minister Gavin Williamson and Prime Minister Boris Johnson are in favour of reopening them as planned.

Under current plans, the reopening of schools and colleges in January will be staggered to allow for the roll out of mass testing, which will be supported by up to 1,500 military personnel who will provide advice and support to schools on how to set up testing facilities.

Councillor Tom Bruce, Cabinet Member for Education, Children and Youth Services at Hounslow Council said, "We understand the reasoning for Government saying secondary schools will ‘stagger’ their return in January, but this is the third of a recent set of short-notice announcements from Government. Those started with the one-day early closure announcement last week, then mass testing in schools, and now this just before the Christmas break.

"This announcement has not come with any real guidance as to what Government wants or expects. Headteachers and school staff have already had an incredibly difficult and exhausting year, and are understandably frustrated, especially as this is right at the end of term. It is shocking, but not surprising, as this government continues to lurch from one panicked and ill-thought-out announcement to another.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It is a true cross-government effort to make sure secondary schools and colleges have the support, guidance, materials and funding they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students from the start of term.

“I am grateful to the armed forces personnel, and all the school and college staff, leaders and volunteers working to put testing in place. This will help break chains of transmission, fight the virus, and help deliver the national priority of keeping education open for all.”

Joe Talora - Local Democracy Reporter

December 30, 2020