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COVID: Schools and outdoor mixing could be first areas where lockdown will be eased

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The prime minister is still aiming to reopen all schools in England next month despite concerns from teachers and scientists.

Ahead of an announcement about easing coronavirus lockdown on Monday, Downing Street refused to be drawn on specific reports that more extensive outdoor socialising could be allowed by Easter, including suggestions that two households will be allowed to meet outside.

But one government source said “looking at how we allow more social contact is incredibly important as soon as we can”.

Senior ministers on the COVID Operations Committee are due to meet on Sunday to finalise the roadmap.

Schools and outdoor mixing are likely to be the first areas where rules will be relaxed.

Education unions have criticised Boris Johnson’s aim to get all pupils back in the classroom at once though, publishing a joint statement calling the plan “reckless”.

Speaking to Sky News, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called for a staggered approach similar to what has been announced in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“Why would we not want to do that in England? Parents want to be reassured why it suddenly feels right that ten million people, teachers, parents do that [come back] on a single day – and possibly risking all the benefits of lockdown so far,” he said.

Mr Barton said there had been constructive discussions with the Department for Education, but added : “The trouble is ultimately the decision isn’t going to be made in DfE but will be made in Number 10 – which is why a number of organisations, teacher unions, school leaders, governors urge cautions and say they want young people to be back in a phased way.

“Because Number 10 and the PM in particular are not necessarily always known for their nuance, if ever there was a time for nuanced caution, it’s now.”

Scientists advising the government have also called for schools to be opened in a phased and gradual way.

Appearing on ITV earlier this month, SAGE member Professor John Edmunds said if all schools were opened at once “I suspect we’d be lucky to keep the reproduction number below one”.

However, the government denied reports in the Guardian newspaper that England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was against the plans saying he agrees with the “prioritisation of education”.

Younger pupils in Wales and Scotland are due to return to the classroom on Monday as part of a staggered approach.

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‘We want this lockdown to be the last’

One Whitehall Source insisted the “ambition” for England was still for all pupils to come back at once, but added there would be caveats around “data not dates” in case those plans needed to change nearer the time.

In the first part of the prime minister’s “roadmap” to ease the lockdown, the government announced that care homes residents in England will be able to hold hands with one named visitor starting from 8 March.

And in Wales, four people from two separate households are allowed to meet for exercise from today – one of a small number of changes to lockdown restrictions announced.

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