Coronavirus: Answers promised after school shutdown confusion

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Media captionThe prime minister spoke about why the decision to close schools was taken

The government has promised to give more details on how school closures will affect students and parents after criticism over a lack of clarity.

A list of the “key workers” during the coronavirus crisis – whose children can still go to school – will be released later, the education secretary said.

He also said more details would be given on Friday on how pupils would be awarded grades in the absence of exams.

It comes after GCSEs and A-Levels in England and Wales were cancelled.

Universities UK said pupils should not lose the chance to go to university this year because of the move.

More details will be announced about exams in Scotland in the Scottish Parliament later. Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney said exams could still go ahead as planned or be re-scheduled.

A decision is also due to be made in Northern Ireland.

The UK death toll rose by 33 to 104 on Wednesday. In other developments across the globe:

Schools in the UK will close their doors on Friday except for vulnerable pupils or children of key workers.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told BBC Breakfast that the Cabinet Office will release the full list of key workers later and parents not on the list would be “immediately aware” their child wouldn’t be offered a place in school.

The list would include NHS workers, school staff and delivery drivers, he said.

On the cancellation of exams, he said the aim was to issue children in England and Wales with grades in August under a “different process and a different system”.

However, he said he could not “with total guarantee” say they would be released that month as “we don’t how the spread of the virus will affect the examining boards and those who issue the grades”.

This academic year’s exams in England and Wales had been due to take place in May and June.

Schools supporting key workers’ children will be expected to remain open during the Easter holidays, while officials are considering who is classed under this category.

Mr Williamson said the government was aiming to provide an “education setting” for 10% of the children who usually attend schools.

Staff and pupils may also be required to work at or attend schools other than their own.

Nurseries, private schools and sixth forms are also being told to follow the guidance to close.

School closure is something the health officials advising government have been continuously asked about.

Their stance has always been that while it can suppress a peak – a 15% reduction has been put forward – some of the gain would be offset by the fact children will still mix outside of school. Parents, including health workers, may have to take time off work or grandparents – one of the vulnerable groups they are trying to protect – may have to look after them.

What is more, children are the age group least likely to get severe symptoms – only 0.2% of cases end up in hospital.

In the end it has undoubtedly come down to two factors.

Firstly, it might just do enough to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed – as suggested by the new modelling by Imperial College London published on Monday.

Secondly, practicalities – increasing numbers of teachers and children are having to isolate at home and classes and exams would be seriously disrupted in the coming months regardless of what was done.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said if an appropriate way to assess students could be found – such as a combination of teacher assessments and previous assignments – then awards could be granted this summer.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This would allow students to get their grades and the university admission process to go ahead this summer.”

Asked whether students who have already been offered a place at university could have it as an unconditional offer, he said: “That is possible, that would be a good option to immediately remove the uncertainty for students.”

The decision to close schools was welcomed by teachers’ unions but many called for more detail from the government.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there were “many complicated issues to address” and “we have more questions than answers at the moment”.

Parents contacting the BBC expressed their concern that predicted grades might be used for results at GCSE and A-level, if pupils did not sit exams.

Lone parents and those who are self-employed were also worried about coping.

Victoria, in Belfast, said: “I am a self-employed mother of twins. I have zero support.

“Now I have to stay home and look after the children. Where will the money come from?”

In other developments in the UK:

  • Britain’s energy suppliers are to help vulnerable customers through the crisis. Measures will include customers who cannot afford their bills getting support from their supplier
  • The Emperor of Japan’s state visit to the UK in May has been postponed because of the outbreak, Buckingham Palace announced. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako were due to stay with the Queen at Windsor Castle
  • Transport for London announced that up to 40 Underground stations would be shut on Thursday and a reduced service would run from Friday. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said Londoners should avoid using the transport network “unless absolutely necessary”
  • The BBC has announced that Sunday services will be broadcast across its 39 local radio stations every week for Christian worshippers who cannot get to church. The first service on Sunday at 08:00 GMT will be led by the Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Driving tests in Northern Ireland will be suspended for three months until 22 June, although this date will be kept under review
  • The ceremony for the Ivor Novello Awards has been moved from May to September because of the outbreak

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There was a drop in passenger numbers on the London Underground after people were urged to work from home and avoid pubs and restaurants

The Army said it was “pausing” basic training, which would involve hundreds or recruits at Harrogate, Pirbright, Catterick and Winchester being sent home.

However, a spokesman said it would not affect the Army’s ability to support public services as part of the “Covid support force” – which only involves troops who have already gone through basic training.

As part of the support the Army will provide during the pandemic, the number of troops at a heightened state of readiness will be doubled to 20,000 and Reserves will be placed on standby.

The Ministry of Defence is also planning to put 150 military personnel into training to drive oxygen tankers around the country to support the NHS.

Elsewhere, Environment Secretary George Eustice has ruled out enforcing social distancing measures in supermarkets.

He told the House of Commons: “It was something that was done in Italy, with a restriction on the number of people in stores and what they found was they just had hundreds of people huddled together at the entrance to the store and it’s counterproductive.”

Emergency laws will be introduced in Parliament later to provide new powers to deal with the outbreak.

The wide-ranging bill includes provisions for border controls, ways of boosting the NHS workforce and making it easier to register a death.

The government says the measures contained within the Coronavirus Bill are proportionate, will only be used when necessary and have a time limit of two years.

But Labour is calling for a fresh vote on the legislation every six months – describing the plans as “far-reaching”.

The prime minister has also said he would not rule out imposing further restrictions in London, where the virus is spreading faster than other parts of the UK.

On Monday, the prime minister announced a series of new key measures to target the number of coronavirus cases after scientific modelling showed the UK was on course for a “catastrophic epidemic”.

Boris Johnson said the subsequent decision to close schools was necessary to further slow the spread of the virus.

Confirmed cases in the UK rose to 2,626 on Wednesday, from 1,950 on Tuesday.

There have been 56,221 tests carried out in the UK for Covid-19. The government says it plans to more than double the number of tests being carried out in England to 25,000 a day.

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