Omicron variant will cause chaos in schools, warn MPs

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The omicron variant will lead to “chaos” in schools, MPs have warned, with children set to be forced into self-isolation by the new rules.

In an attempt to prevent the spread of the mutant strain of Covid-19, close contacts of those who test positive for omicron will have to self-isolate for 10 days, with the Government confirming that this applies to children.

On Sunday night, ministers were warned that the move risks a repeat of the situation during the summer term when thousands of healthy children were told to stay at home.

Steve Baker MP, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said the measures “will cause chaos including collateral harms like damage to children’s education”, adding: “The Government needs to explain when all of this will be brought to an end.”

Parents have called for children to be exempt from the new self-isolation rules.

Molly Kingsley, co-founder of parent campaign group UsForThem, said: “We learnt from summer that forcing healthy children to isolate was an unmitigated disaster and it is unforgivable to do that again.

“If they don’t exempt children it will cause chaos in the classrooms. Asking healthy children to quarantine is not a harm-free measure, it is harmful to children who are not at serious risk from the illness. At this point in the pandemic it is shameful for the Government not to have an exemption for children.”

Return of the bubbles

Earlier this year, The Telegraph launched a campaign calling for an end to disruption in schools and for children to be put at the heart of policy making.

In a further blow to the end of term, the UK’s biggest teaching union was arguing on Sunday night for a return of the “bubble” system and for all in-person nativity plays and other Christmas activities to be axed, as the Government confirmed facemasks would have to be worn in secondary school corridors from Monday.

It comes as a third UK case of the omicron variant, which it is feared could evade vaccines, was confirmed by health authorities. The individual, who is no longer in the country, is linked to travel to southern Africa and spent time in Westminster during their visit.

Meanwhile members of a church congregation and visitors at a KFC outlet were told to get a PCR test after a case of the variant was detected in Brentwood.

In response to omicron, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is set to approve booster jabs for all adults within days, opening up the programme to 13 million 18-39 year olds.

The committee is also likely to reduce the gap between second jabs and boosters, in order to speed up the pace of the rollout, and to back second doses for 12- 15-year-olds.

Sajid Javid’s calming words

The Health Secretary sought to calm concerns on Sunday, saying that families should keep planning for Christmas as normal.

Sajid Javid said the country was “nowhere near” adopting tougher lockdown restrictions despite the new variant.

However, popular holiday destinations began introducing tougher entry requirements for travellers from the UK, including Spain which will now require all arrivals to be vaccinated.

Schools are now entering the final few weeks of term before the holidays, with trips, nativity plays, Christmas fairs and other end-of-term events due to take place.

But the new isolation rules could put all of these – as well as students’ GCSE and A-level mocks which will be used as evidence for teachers’ predicted grades if exams are cancelled – in jeopardy.

MPs have called for the government to do everything possible to limit disruption for pupils.

Robert Halfon MP, the Tory chairman of the education select committee, said: “We should be doing everything to keep children in schools until the Christmas holidays.”

He said that when Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, and the Health Secretary addressed MPs ahead of the Downing Street press conference on Saturday, he asked “if there was any risk to children from the omicron variant, and they said the risk is very low. Given that children are at very low risk, everything should be done to keep kids in schools not out of it.”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, the former Tory party leader, said: “We have already seen a staggering number of children who have missed out on education. So we must absolutely be clear that there is no reason why children should not be in school.”

He said that the news rules compelling healthy children to self-isolate should be “looked at very carefully in light of the already existing massive problem for children missing education”.

A senior government source suggested that if the number of people forced to self-isolate surges then changes could be made to how the rules work.

“We are talking about a tiny amount of people right now. Obviously if that increases then we will review things like exemptions,” the source said.

Christmas nativities cancelled?

Some parents may be reluctant to let their children take part in Christmas activities in case they catch omicron and send the family into self isolation over the festive period.

For similar reasons, companies are expected to face demands that staff be allowed to once again work from home.

The UK’s biggest teacher union is now pushing for all nativity plays and end-of-term events to be axed in favour of online performances, The Telegraph has learned.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), also said bubbles should be brought back to limit transmission within schools, along with staggered break and lunch times.

The bubble system would mean that classes and year groups were kept separate from each other.

“We shouldn’t be doing in-person Christmas performances,” Mr Courtney said. “It might be best to look at doing the performance and broadcasting it on Zoom, rather than having parents in the school.”

Now that close contacts of anyone with the omicron variant has to self-isolate, schools will want to be extra cautious about hosting large gatherings of people “ahead of the holidays”, he added.

Government officials wrote to all headteachers in England on Sunday night, advising that from Monday all secondary school students will be required to wear face masks in communal areas such as corridors.

But the NEU has said that this does not go far enough and that secondary pupils should also wear masks during lessons.

Other unions welcomed the new restrictions in schools, with Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, describing the face mask mandate as “reassuring”.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, also said he is pleased with the government’s “precautionary” approach.

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