NEWS
19/03/2020 8:36 AM AEDT

UK Schools To Close Over Coronavirus From Friday

Education secretary Gavin Williamson says shutdown is "until further notice" while PM confirms exams will not go ahead.

Updated: See the latest stories on the coronavirus outbreak.

All UK schools will be closed from Friday to stop the spread of coronavirus and exams will not go ahead in May and June, the government has confirmed. 

Education secretary Gavin Williamson made the announcement of school closures in the Commons on Wednesday.

He said the government is “expecting” early years providers, sixth forms and further education colleges to do the same.

At least 560 people in Australia have tested positive for COVID-19, while six people have died.

The virus has killed more than 8,200 people worldwide with infections reaching the 200,000 mark.

Speaking separately at a press conference at Downing Street, prime minister Boris Johnson said the news means that “exams will not take place” as planned, but that young people would nonetheless “get the qualifications they need”. 

It came as the UK death toll from the disease pandemic reached 104 on Wednesday. 

Williamson told MPs: “I want to provide parents, students and staff with the certainty they need.

“After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon they will remain closed until further notice.

“This will be for all children except to those of key workers and where children who are most vulnerable.”

The PM, meanwhile, said those due to face exams would be treated “fairly”.

He said: “We will make sure that they are not impeded – their progress is not impeded – as a result of the decisions we’re having to make now, so we will make sure that in time they get the qualifications they need.

“I don’t want to go into detail about when and how those qualifications will be administered but it will be done fairly and in order to protect their interests.”

Pupils eligible for free school meals will be handed food vouchers and that there would be provision for vulnerable youngsters and those with special educational needs, the minister said. 

Williamson said a skeleton school operation would remain in some areas for the children of key workers needed during the crisis, such as NHS and retail staff. 

He went on: “The scientific advice shows that these settings are safe for this small number of children to continue attending.

“But asking others to stay away will just go towards helping us slow the spread of this virus.

“Examples of these key workers include NHS staff, police and delivery drivers who need to be able to go to work.

“Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with educational health and care plans.”

The news follows devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland announcing schools in the three nations would close for an early Easter break by Friday. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the country faces a “truly unprecedented and grave situation”.

He said: “The government has explained to us that the decision taken about schools today, led by the scientific and health advice, will balance the need to restrict access to schools with continuing to provide some important functions to maintain the fabric of society.

“This is part of the state-wide response to this crisis.  I know that the education sector wants to do all that it can to support the country.” 

Announcing closures in Scotland from the end of the week, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that schools had lost too many staff to continue as normal. 

She added that she wanted to reassure teachers and staff and said the Scottish government was still working out the finer detail of what this will all mean.

Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams, meanwhile, said: “Today’s decision will help ensure an orderly closure, so schools have time to prepare ahead of the early break.

“My main message for everyone is to stay safe and stay well. We will work together and we will face this outbreak together.”

She also said the Welsh government was still working to clarify what the school closures would mean for pupils with forthcoming examinations.

She said: “From the outset, the decisions being taken have been focused on public health advice, and it is right that these science-based recommendations are front and centre of the decisions being made.”

Schools in Northern Ireland will close to pupils from 5pm on Friday, Stormont said. 

The UK government had faced increased pressure from parents calling on Britain to follow other countries and close schools – with some opting to remove their own children against official guidance.