Sadiq Khan has urged the government to delay the re-opening of secondary schools for in-person learning until later in January than currently planned, as ministers are reported to be reviewing its current national aim for a staggered return to classrooms from 4 January.
The Mayor said such action is a necessary measure for reducing the spread of the coronavirus, citing what he called the “dangerously high” rate of infection in London, secondary school students showing the highest rates before Christmas and the situation in London’s hospitals being at “critical level”.
In a separate intervention, Khan has responded to the approval by regulators of the vaccine against Covid-19 developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca by urging ministers to make use of military and territorial army personnel and appropriately trained volunteers to rapidly increase the number of vaccinations given across the country to two million a week.
The Mayor’s calls have been made in the context of escalating pressure on the capital’s health services as the new, more transmissible variant of Covid-19 has taken hold, initially in east London and neighbouring parts of south east England and increasingly across the whole of the capital and much of the country. Office for National Statistics figures have shown that well over 60% of identified new Covid cases in the capital in the run-up to Christmas were of the new variant type, the highest rate in the UK.
Amid high and rapidly rising overall infection rates, the BBC has reported that the London Ambulance Service received nearly 8,000 emergency calls on 26 December, matching the number at the height of the first wave of infections in the spring. London hospitals have reported exceptionally high numbers of patients with Covid being admitted. The Nightingale hospital at the ExCel Centre, an emergency facility opened at the start of April, remains on standby.
Khan prefaced his remarks about schools re-opening with an insistence that he doesn’t want London children’s education disrupted, but said holding back the return of secondary school students, except for the vulnerable and the children of key workers, would “allow time for the virus to be suppressed and for the government to finally roll out mass testing in schools to ensure staff and students are able to return to a safe environment which does not put them or their families in harm’s way.”
He also demanded that the government urgently provides more resources to “support online learning and ensure students are not further disadvantaged by lack of access to equipment or the internet.”
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