Coronavirus: Schools to close indefinitely from Friday and evictions banned

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Schools across the UK will shut their doors on Friday to all but the most vulnerable of children and those whose parents are key to fighting coronavirus, with no date in sight for when they will reopen.

Students will miss out on taking their exams, while those usually entitled to free schools meals will be provided with vouchers to help support struggling families.

The extreme measures come as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs the situation with coronavirus had become “increasingly challenging” in schools due to staff and pupil absences, but also that the pressures had reached a peak much sooner than expected.

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He told the House of Commons yesterday: "The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated and it is crucial that we continue to consider the right measures to arrest this increase and to relieve the pressure on the health system.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks in the Commons. Photo: PAEducation Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks in the Commons. Photo: PA
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks in the Commons. Photo: PA

Until yesterday the Government had played down the prospect of closing schools, insisting they would only do so when the time was right.

But Mr Williamson said: "I've said before that if the science and the advice changed, such that keeping schools open would no longer be in the best interest of children and teachers, that we would act - we are now at that stage."

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said parents were facing having their children at home for many months,likely until after the summer holiday.

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But in England Mr Williamson would not be drawn on how long the measures would stay in place, saying only that schools would be closed “until further notice”.

The children of key workers such as those who work for the NHS, the police, or delivery drivers, will be able to go to school on Monday to ensure these essential employees can still support the fight against the virus.

Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves asked Mr Williamson what support there would be for parents outside these industries.

She said: "Parents may not be key workers but they will be key workers in their homes because they're the ones who are paying the mortgage, the rent and the bills. So if parents can't go out to work because their children can't go to school, who will pay their salaries?"

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Mr Williamson responded: "Where we are sort of dealing with in terms of this statement is making sure that we provide the provision that we need for those key workers in order to sustain our NHS.

"Whereas I very much accept the point that many wider issues are raised as a result of this, and this is why we had some reluctance to be in a position of closing schools rapidly but when the evidence and the science points out the fact that we do need to make changes, it's right that we do."

Leading unions have suggested a remedy would be to ensure that working parents get paid parental leave when their child's school or nursery closes because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The TUC said many parents are already having to take time off work to care for children, or could feel forced to ask grandparents to help out with childcare, potentially risking the health of vulnerable older people.

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The union body warned that working women will be hard hit because they bear a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities, and that single-parent families are especially vulnerable.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "As schools and nurseries close, lots of mums and dads will have no choice but to take time off work. They must be guaranteed paid parental leave.”

Matthew Fell, the CBI's chief UK policy director, said: "Today's announcement on school closures feels necessary, but of course will present challenges for parents and carers.

"Businesses will do all they can to help their employees in these unprecedented times.

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"Companies will make every effort to offer flexible working, but many parents simply won't be able to do their jobs and care for their children at the same time.”

Tory Jason McCartney, MP for Colne Valley, asked what steps will be in place for year 11 students to help with "the emotional challenge" they face in having their GCSEs potentially scrapped.

Mr Williamson replied: "I recognise, like everyone else, that this is not what you would call an ideal situation and I certainly did not want to be the Education Secretary that was the one to cancel all exams."

Responding to Labour Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel's question if all school staff, not just teachers, will continue to be paid, Mr Williamson said: "It probably will not surprise the honourable gentleman that we will continue to fully fund schools and that those people who are working in schools will continue to get paid."

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Vulnerable children, including those who have a social worker and those with educational health and care plans, will also still be able to go to school.

The announcement came as the Government also set out emergency legislation would better protection for renters during the crisis.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced the plans to ensure landlords cannot start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period, in a bid to ensure renters do not worry about the threat of losing their home.

The three-month mortgage payment holiday announced by the Chancellor on Tuesday will also be extended to landlords whose tenants are experiencing financial difficulties due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

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Mr Jenrick said: "The Government is clear - no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.

"These are extraordinary times and renters and landlords alike are of course worried about paying their rent and mortgage.

"Which is why we are urgently introducing emergency legislation to protect tenants in social and private accommodation from an eviction process being started.

"These changes will protect all renters and private landlords ensuring everyone gets the support they need at this very difficult time."

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