Covid in Scotland: Sturgeon set to confirm phased return to schools

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image captionSchools across Scotland have been closed to the vast majority of pupils since December

Nicola Sturgeon is to announce whether some pupils will start to return to Scottish classrooms from next week in a statement at Holyrood.

This could include children aged four to seven and secondary pupils required to carry out practical assignments.

The first minister has said she was "very keen" to begin the phased return of younger pupils to schools.

However, she warned this would not mark the start of a broader easing of the Covid-19 restrictions.

The devolved nations have the powers to set their own coronavirus rules, and while they have made similar decisions during the crisis, they have moved at different speeds.

In England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to set out a roadmap on 22 February for easing lockdown there - including the date schools can reopen to all pupils.

He warned on Monday people must be "optimistic but patient" about the end of national restrictions, and that now was not the time to "relax".

Primary schools in Wales begin the process of reopening next Monday, while in Northern Ireland, schools remain closed to most pupils until at least 8 March.

In Scotland, ministers will examine the latest data and scientific advice on Tuesday morning, before their decision is announced to MSPs in the afternoon.

Opposition parties have called for the Scottish government to set out more detail about its approach to eventually easing restrictions and lifting lockdown.

Most school pupils have been learning remotely during 2021 as part of Scotland's "stay at home" lockdown. A small number of children, including those whose parents have key worker status, are allowed to attend.

At her daily Covid-19 briefing on Monday, Ms Sturgeon said she was "very, very, very keen to go ahead" with plans for a phased return to the classroom.

However, she said only between 5% and 8% of any school's roll should return.

It had previously been indicated that children in P1 to P3 years and a limited number of secondary pupils who need practical resources to complete qualifications would return to schools from next Monday.

Ministers will take a final decision about this, based on the latest data, at a meeting of the Scottish government's cabinet on Tuesday morning.

They will also consider an "indicative timetable" for other pupils returning.

However, Ms Sturgeon warned that it was unlikely that other lockdown restrictions would start to be eased, with schools the top priority.

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image captionNicola Sturgeon and John Swinney will discuss plans with ministers on Tuesday morning before the Holyrood announcement

She said: "What is really important is that that's not seen as a trigger for people who are currently able to work from home to go back to work, or parents deciding to meet up with each other more.

"What was often the risk factor around schools is not transmission inside schools, its all the activity that takes place around schools."

The first minister also said there would be "trade-offs" over the coming months as the country eases out of lockdown, with schools and care home visiting "the kind of things we focus on first as we try to get things back to normal".

MSPs will have the chance to question Ms Sturgeon following the statement, with opposition leaders pressing for more details on the government's future plans.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said it was understandable that there were not "specific dates set in stone" for easing restrictions, but said it was important ministers provided more of a "route map" out of lockdown.

He said: "We need to know the triggers that will be in place for all school pupils to go back, for businesses to reopen - will we have a tiered approach or a national approach?

"These are the crucial points that businesses really need to be aware of so we can see our way out of this crisis."

'Jiggery-pokery'

Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said there was "no point in setting dates" for lifting lockdown due to uncertainty about vaccine supplies and new variants.

He said: "What the government can do is list the policies they want to bring in, the safety measures they want to bring in, and as those measures come in it can be easier for us to ease some restrictions and return back to normal."

Scottish Labour, meanwhile, has called for supply teachers to be given a greater role in delivering online learning, saying they had been "forgotten" in Education Secretary John Swinney's latest plans.

Education spokesman Iain Gray said: "Many supply teachers face financial hardship and are unable to rely on furlough funds - this is unacceptable. It's time for John Swinney to bring our supply teachers in from the cold and get them to work."

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And the Lib Dems have called for the government to publish an unedited interim report from an OECD review of Scotland's education system before May's Holyrood election.

The final report from the review is not expected to be published until June due to pandemic delays, but leader Willie Rennie said ministers had already had sight of early drafts - calling this "scandalous" and "jiggery pokery".

The UK recorded another 9,765 new coronavirus infections on Monday, according to the latest government figures. It is the first time the daily cases figure has been under 10,000 since 2 October.

A further 230 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were also recorded. Fewer deaths tend to be reported on Mondays due to a reporting lag over the weekend.

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