KEEPING schools open is a "national priority" and should happen even if it increases the R number, Tory MPs have said.
A number of backbenchers are understood to have urged Boris Johnson to keep schools open in the event of another lockdown, ahead of classroom crunch talks today.
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Number 10 and Department for Education officials will today discuss whether to let children back to classrooms in January.
Downing Street has repeatedly said that keeping schools open is a "national priority" but scientists warn closures may be needed to slow the spread of the new Covid-19 variant, The Telegraph reports.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which advises the Government, has said the new mutant strain may spread more effectively in kids than the original strain did.
And Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London epidemiologist who pressed the Government into the first lockdown in March, has raised similar fears.
We know that schools being open does increase the R rate. The question is, is that a price we are willing to pay? In my view it should be.
But Conservative MPs have told the Prime Minister that schools must be kept open even if it means a rise in the R number.
One backbencher said: “The view of most Tory MPs is that schools do need to stay open.
“It is the health people who are saying ‘oh gosh, the hospitals will be full’.
“We know that schools being open does increase the R rate.
"The question is, is that a price we are willing to pay and in my view it should be. Frankly, children don’t get harmed so why on earth should we punish them?”
Prof Neil Ferguson said data so far suggested that the new Covid variant "has a higher propensity to infect children" with "statistically significantly higher" rates found among under-15s compared with those of the standard virus.
'PARTICULARLY MARKED IN CHILDREN'
But another senior Tory MP called the professor a “fanatic who wants to shut down everything,” adding: “I think it’s absolutely wrong for him to start scaring parents and children without actually having the scientific evidence.”
The MP also said it is regrettable that closing schools is now “on the table” but added that many MPs would oppose this.
“Until the Chief Medical Officer gets up and says ‘this is a disaster if we keep schools open because the new strain will threaten parents’, then fine, even I would accept that,” he said.
Earlier this week researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said there is "some evidence that the increase may be particularly marked in children".
They found that the new strain of the virus is 56 per cent more infectious – and that even with another national lockdown, it would be difficult to get the R rate down.
They need to not just assess risk of coronavirus but also the risk of loss of learning, damage to mental health, safeguarding and wellbeingbefore any decision is made to shut schools.
Their study also found that infections were "unlikely" to go down unless schools and universities closed.
Robert Halfon, the Tory MP and chair of the education select committee said that a full risk assessment must be made before any decision over schools is taken.
“They need to not just assess risk of coronavirus but also the risk of loss of learning, damage to mental health, safeguarding and wellbeing before any decision is made to shut schools,” he said.
Pupils already face a staggered return and teachers are expected to be bumped up the vaccination list when the Oxford jab is approved.
And a Whitehall source said closure of schools in stay at home areas is on the table.
Meanwhile, London Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey is calling for schools to stay shut for two weeks.
He said: "We must make the most of the Christmas break to defeat Covid-19 where we can.
"I am proposing a two-week circuit-breaker for schools. During this time we can stop our children mixing and get our teachers tested.
"This gives us a fighting chance against the virus without causing maximum disruption."
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