Tuesday 19 January 2021 4:53 pm

London schools could be first to reopen in ‘regional return’ for pupils, says medical adviser

Schools in London could be among the first to reopen after England’s third national lockdown as infection rates across the capital continue to decline, the deputy chief medical officer has said.

Speaking to MPs at an education committee meeting, Dr Jenny Harries said there would “likely” be regional differences in Covid measures once England exits its nationwide lockdown. 

Read more: 24-hour vaccination sites to be piloted in London by end of January

“On the broad epidemiology, it is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown, we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country,” she said.

“And therefore, as we had prior to the national lockdown, it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application.”

Harries said schools will be “right at the top of the priority” regarding a return to normality, adding that “it’s likely we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions”.

England’s deputy medical officer said the approach followed “some glimmers of hope” about current infection rates in London, which have continued to lose pace during lockdown.

It comes after a leading scientist yesterday said coronavirus infections appear “to have peaked in London”, as the number of new cases has seen a dramatic drop across the capital.

Dr Rupert Pearse, from the Intensive Care Society, told the BBC: “[Rates vary] a lot around the country and it varies a lot between hospitals, and that’s quite important to realise.”

Read more: How many Covid-19 infections are there in your London borough?

“It looks as though infections have peaked in London… but are still on the rise in the north-west of England and around Yorkshire, so there is still cause to be concerned,” he added. 

Just three out of 32 London boroughs currently have an infection rate higher than the 1,000 cases per 100,000 people mark, down from 17 last week. 

The figures mean London currently has the lowest rate of infection in the UK, after the capital’s R rate on Friday dropped to a best estimate of 0.9 to 1.2 — down from a range of 1.1 to 1.4 last week.

Downing Street refused to rule out the suggestion, but stressed that the Prime Minister’s priority remained to get schools open as soon as possible.

“Whether or not that will be possible after the February half-term will depend on a number of factors”, the PM’s spokesman said, adding that England will likely return to a tiered system that could affect schools regionally.

Read more: NHS hospitals use blockchain technology to track and monitor vaccines

Latest figures from the Department for Education showed that more than one fifth of primary school pupils in England were on-site last week, while five per cent of secondary pupils returned to school.

During the first national lockdown, on-site attendance was around four per cent in primary schools and one per cent in secondary schools.