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Minister insists lockdown easing ‘is not a dash’ as health officials voice fears

Aaron Chown

By Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent

A Cabinet minister has insisted the lockdown is being eased in a “very cautious” way as children in England begin returning to school, despite public health officials warning against the relaxation.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said he understands parents’ concerns over sending their children back to class on Monday, but added that the Government had not undertaken a “dash” to re-start the economy.

The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) warned that experts were “increasingly concerned” that ministers are making the wrong judgment by easing restrictions too quickly.

Parents seemingly share their concerns, with a survey suggesting 46% of families were expected to keep pupils at home as classes open to children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England.

Mr Sharma told BBC Breakfast: “This is not a dash. These are very cautious steps that we are taking. They are phased.”

He said that he “completely” understands that “every parent wants to keep their child safe”, but insisted the Government had taken steps to ensure schools are safe to return to.

Classrooms began reopening to more pupils in England as social restrictions across the UK were being eased so people can have limited contact with friends and family outdoors.

ADPH president Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy said public health directors were concerned that the public was “not keeping to social distancing as it was”, with pictures emerging of crowded beaches and beauty spots over the weekend.

With UK deaths linked to Covid-19 rising above 48,000, she said the NHS test and trace programme “is currently far from being the robust operation that is now urgently required as a safeguard to easing restrictions”.

And Dr de Gruchy added: “Directors of public health are increasingly concerned that the Government is misjudging this balancing act and lifting too many restrictions, too quickly.”

Groups of up to six people were also permitted to meet outside at a distance in England from Monday, and outdoor markets and car showrooms are reopening.

Socially-distanced outdoor meetings of the same size could already take place in Northern Ireland, while in Scotland individuals can meet those from one other household in groups of up to eight.

Wales has not set a size restriction, but groups meeting outside must only be comprised of individuals from two different households.

Many schools had remained open to vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers, but they are now opening their doors wider in a phased approach from the Westminster Government.

A survey of local authorities by the PA news agency found more than 20 councils across England, predominantly in the north, were advising schools not to open.

Some raised concerns that the test and trace programme is not yet “robust enough” to sufficiently reduce Covid-19 transmission in schools, where social distancing is hard to maintain.

Wales has not set a date for schools fully reopening, while in Scotland and Northern Ireland pupils will be going back in limited return from August.

And a poll of more than 1,200 school leaders by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggested headteachers were expecting 46% of families to keep pupils at home.

Some 2.2 million vulnerable people in England and Wales who had been shielded due to the heightened threat from coronavirus were also being allowed to go outdoors in England and Wales from Monday.

Some experts on the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), which is informing the Government’s coronavirus response, have also warned that ministers are taking risks.

But deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said the relaxation was safe if the public is “sensible” and does not “overdo it”.