Schools are being instructed to remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic despite further social distancing measures announced by the Government.
The Prime Minister said all people in the UK should avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, stop all non-essential contact and travel, and work from home if they can.
But Boris Johnson stopped short of announcing school closures – telling a press briefing that although the measures will remain “under review”, it is “much better” they currently stay open.
It comes after unions representing teachers – who met with the Education Secretary on Monday – warned that it was “likely” a number of schools will be forced to close due to a lack of staff.
Announcing the measures at a press briefing, Mr Johnson said: “We’re keeping all measures under review and particularly obviously people will be thinking about school closures, there is an argument about school closures.
“We think at the moment, on balance, it’s much better if we can keep schools open for all sorts of reasons.
“But I appreciate that this is again something that we need to keep under review.”
On potential school closures, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told the briefing on Monday it needed to be done “at the right time”.
“It is also possible, as laid out in the plan, that other measures may be necessary, including at some point, as we’ve said, it may be necessary to think about things like school closures,” he said.
“But those things again need to be done at the right time, in the right way, at the right stage of the outbreak.”
School leaders held talks with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday afternoon to discuss the implications of schools being closed and exams being postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Geoff Barton, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary, and Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said staff self-isolating was the “most immediately pressing challenge”.
A joint statement said: “This is clearly a very difficult situation and a very challenging scenario for school leaders, and the government is well aware of our concerns.
Do you have questions about Coronavirus in an education setting?— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) March 16, 2020
You can contact our helpline, which offers guidance for anyone with education related questions - from early years up to universities, plus parents. #Coronavirus #covidã¼19uk pic.twitter.com/cWCUEjP7SR
“The most immediately pressing challenge is the difficulty in keeping schools open with growing numbers of staff having to self-isolate.
“It is likely that a number of schools will have to close because there are too few staff available to teach, support and supervise children.
“We are concerned about the implications for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities as well as children who receive free school meals if a school is closed or they have to self-isolate, and similarly, the wellbeing of vulnerable young people where there are identified safeguarding risks.”
They said they were to hold further talks with Mr Williamson and his officials later this week, and had raised the “crucial question” of SATs, GCSE and A-level exams – currently scheduled for May and June.
The ceasing of routine inspections by Ofsted was also raised by the two unions, after Estyn, the Welsh education inspectorate, announced it was suspending inspections until further notice.
The National Education Union has written to Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman calling for inspections to cease as COVID-19 spreads.https://t.co/PTeIgNAMGK— National Education Union (@NEUnion) March 15, 2020
Mr Barton and Mr Whiteman added: “We have also asked today that routine Ofsted inspections and school performance tables are suspended this year to allow schools and colleges to focus on the national mission of coping with this unprecedented situation.”
The National Education Union said earlier on Monday that Scotland and Wales had “shown England the way” in ceasing inspections.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is unacceptable for Ofsted inspections to be taking place at a time of national emergency.
“School leaders and staff are straining every sinew to support and protect their students.
“They should be allowed to focus on this, not have their stress made worse by the threat of an imminent Ofsted inspection.”
It follows new guidance issued to schools by the Government, which said children who develop a continuous cough or fever at school should be sent home with suspected coronavirus.
The updated information says all educational settings should remain open unless directly advised to close by Public Health England (PHE).