Hundreds of thousands of pupils in England will not return to schools and colleges as planned due to rising infection rates and the spread of the new Covid-19 variant.

Announcing a U-turn on the planned staggered reopening, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said students in exam years will return to secondary schools a week later than planned, from 11 January.

Other secondary and college students will go back full-time on 18 January, he told the House of Commons.

Primary schools in a "small number of areas" where Covid-19 infection rates are the highest will not reopen for face-to-face teaching to all pupils as planned next week.

There has been growing concern from teaching unions and scientists about the spread of the virus following the discovery of its much more transmissible variant, with rising case rates and hospital admissions in many parts of the country.

Mr Williamson told MPs that the Government had to make an "immediate adjustment" to its plans for the reopening of schools in early January.

He said: "We must always act swiftly when circumstances change. The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term."

He added: "The latest study we have from Public Health England is that Covid infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate. The study also says that the wider impact of school closures on children's development would be significant.

"I'm quite clear that we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school."

The staggered approach was due to see primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils returning in the first week of January, and other students going back later in the month to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

The change of plan comes after warnings from experts suggesting a delayed return might be necessary as hospitals struggle with more Covid-19 patients than in the peak of the first wave.

A YouGov poll conducted overnight suggested that 43% of 7,999 British adults surveyed would "strongly support" keeping schools in England closed for two further weeks after the Christmas break.

Just 9% "strongly oppose" and 10% "somewhat oppose" keeping school gates shut, YouGov said. 


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Meanwhile the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine was announced by Britain's Health Secretart Matt Hancock this morning.

A UK Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "The Government has today accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to authorise Oxford University/AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine for use.

"This follows rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA, which has concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness."

Data published in The Lancet medical journal in early December showed the vaccine was 62% effective in preventing Covid-19 among a group of 4,440 people given two standard doses of the vaccine when compared with 4,455 people given a placebo drug.

Of 1,367 people given a half first dose of the vaccine followed by a full second dose, there was 90% protection against Covid-19 when compared with a control group of 1,374 people.

The overall Lancet data, which was peer-reviewed, set out full results from clinical trials of more than 20,000 people.

Among the people given the placebo drug, ten were admitted to hospital with coronavirus, including two with severe Covid which resulted in one death.

But among those receiving the vaccine, there were no hospital admissions or severe cases.

The half dose followed by a full dose regime came about as a result of an accidental dosing error.

However, the MHRA was made aware of what happened and clinical trials for the vaccine were allowed to continue.

Mr Hancock said the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is a "great British success story".

He told Times Radio: "This is a great British success story and the reason it matters so much is that this vaccine is easy to administer, it only needs to be stored at a normal fridge temperature so we can get it right out into GPs' surgeries, into care homes, and critically we've got 100 million doses coming so everybody can get vaccinated.

"Because of the way that it's been approved, because the second dose is only needed after 12 weeks, it means that we can accelerate the rollout of this."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the development is a "triumph for British science".

In an interview with the Sunday Times, AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot suggested that further data submitted to the regulator showed the vaccine could match the 95% efficacy achieved by the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

"We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else," he said.

On Monday, Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), described the vaccine as a "game changer" but said it would take until summer to vaccinate enough people for herd immunity - when the virus struggles to circulate.

"To get the wider community herd immunity from vaccination rather than through natural infection will take probably 70% to 80% of the population to be vaccinated, and that, I'm afraid, is going to take us right into the summer, I expect," he said.