Coronavirus in Scotland: Youngest pupils to return to school in weeks as lockdown restrictions extended

The youngest primary school children will return to full time schooling in three weeks’ time, the First Minister has announced in the first major relaxation in Covid-19 restrictions since Christmas.

The decision came as Nicola Sturgeon announced the majority of lockdown measures would continue until at least late February, with “gradual easing” potentially beginning in early March.

Announcing the phased return of children to school, the First Minister announced all children in P1 to P3 would return to school full time, with those below school age able to take advantage of a full-time return of early learning and childcare.

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Senior phase children will also begin returning to school, but only for necessary in-school practical work related to national qualifications. This would be a cohort of around 5 per cent to 8 per cent of any secondary school roll in school at any one time, the First Minister said.

Coronavirus in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon updates parliament.

Ms Sturgeon also announced a raft of new testing measures for pupils and teachers, with twice-weekly asymptomatic at-home PCR Covid-19 tests to be made available to teachers and secondary school students and in place from February 22.

Other measures due to be increased include routine testing of primary care workers such as GPs, dentists, optometrists and pharmacists, and testing of those in workplaces with a high risk of transmission such as food processing plants.

The eligibility for the £500 self-isolation grant is also to be extended to those earning below the real living wage.

Incoming travellers will also be forced to quarantine in hotels regardless of where they have travelled from under new plans from the Scottish Government.

On schools, Ms Sturgeon said it was “obvious” everyone wanted pupils back as soon as possible, but she added the closures currently in place were “necessary” to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

She said: “I have to be candid that our room for manoeuvre, given the current state of the pandemic, is limited.

“In short, the judgment the Cabinet arrived at this morning, based on the advice of our expert advisers, is that if we all agree to abide with the lockdown restrictions for a bit longer, so that our progress in suppressing the virus continues, we can begin a phased, albeit gradual, return to school from February 22.”

In response, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) said any return to schools should be contingent on continued suppression of Covid-19 and raised concerns about a lack of guidance around social distancing in the cohorts returning to school.

General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The EIS believes that a blended learning model, i.e. implementing physical distancing, would be a safer strategy to deploy and we would need to see strong scientific evidence to justify the government’s approach.

"Frankly, in the absence of such evidence, this model creates unnecessary risk for staff and pupils.”

Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie repeated warnings that school closures could cost children £40,000 over the course of their lifetime, having missed almost half a year of normal in-person schooling.

She said: “Almost a year into this pandemic, we are all too aware of the negative impact lockdown and school closures are having on children and young people.

"Last Thursday the Equality and Fairer Scotland budget statement cited challenges for attainment, for career progression, and we know that for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, these challenges will be felt even more acutely.”

The Scottish Greens welcomed the move to extend testing to teachers and pupils, but warned the reopening of schools should not come “at the expense of safety”.

Co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “It is vital the return of schools is not done at the expense of safety and that it does not spread the virus further. I am pleased the Scottish Government has acted on our calls for extra staff and testing, but capacity issues remain.

“We need to look at the practicalities and implications for teacher workloads. Many young people were required, often repeatedly, to self-isolate when schools were open before Christmas, so teachers will require additional support if they are going to be expected to deliver both remote learning and in-class teaching at the same time, as well as the additional test and trace work they are being asked to do.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: “After weeks of obstruction, the First Minister has now acknowledged the need for more community testing, which is something I have been seeking for a long time now.

“With routine testing for schools now on the cards, the Government must race to get this system in place before more pupils return to classrooms.”

In addition, business groups have called on the Scottish Government to provide firms with a route map out lockdown after the announcement restrictions would remain in force until at least the end of February.

Andrew McRae, the Federation of Small Businesses’ Scotland policy chairman, said: “Another lockdown extension heaps more pressure on debt-laden Scottish businesses, with many firms considering whether they should shut up shop for good.

“To minimise the number of business failures, ministers need to outline their provisional re-opening timetable and provide new support to firms that have had little or no help throughout this crisis.”

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said there was an “urgent” need for a roadmap to recovery.

She said: “Many will be disappointed that non-essential shops will remain closed, not least because of the immense investment the sector has made so they are safe for employees and customers.

“Ultimately, the best route to support the economy is to re-open.

“That’s why we urgently need an economic roadmap to recovery that outlines clear conditions and timelines for reopening sectors of the economy if we are to protect businesses and jobs.”

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