Schools should be among the first places to re-open when the government decides to ease the coronavirus lockdown, Sir Keir Starmer has suggested.
The Labour leader also reiterated his call for ministers to publish their exit strategy from the severe social distancing measures, in order to maintain trust and show the public “light at the end of the tunnel”.
It comes as the government prepares to announce an extension to the lockdown tomorrow to curb the spread of covid-19 – after both France and the Republic of Ireland confirmed their restrictions would remain in place until the beginning of May at least.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4s Today programme, Sir Keir said Labour would support an extension to the lockdown and measures necessary to bring down the coronavirus death rate, but demanded an exit strategy detailing how restrictions could be eased.
While declining to set out a “rival plan”, he insisted he had “concerns” that the closures of schools across the UK were worsening inequalities between children who have resources and those in overcrowded accommodation.
Asked whether the government would have Labours backing to re-open schools, he replied: “What Im saying is we need to know what the strategy is, discuss it, challenge it and check that its right. And then I genuinely would hope we could build consensus around it and if we think its the right strategy, the Labour Party would support it.
Pressed again on whether schools should be among the first things to return when restrictions are eased, he told the BBC: “In principle, yes.
“I also think that mass community testing and tracing is almost certainly going to be part of the answer here. I do think that when it gets to a vaccine weve got to have a national plan to operationalise.”
In a letter to Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary who is deputising for Boris Johnson in his absence, Sir Keir said on Thursday evening that the lockdown as “exacerbated existing inequalities” across the country.
“Many will be struggling with their mental health as well as other health conditions that may not receive the attention they normally would without the virus. This lockdown is not affecting people equally. In fact, it has exacerbated existing inequalities in our country,’ he said.
“A family living in an overcrowded flat will have particular challenges. And it is hard to imagine the daily horror of someone trapped in a home with his or her abuser. The government has a duty to do what it can to alleviate these pressures on people.”
In response to his call for the publication of an exit plan, a government source said: “Our strategy is focused on saving lives. We have been clear that all decisions will be guided by the scientific advice and data. Talk of an exit strategy before we have reached the peak risks confusing the critical message that people need to stay at home in order to protect our NHS and save lives.”