Christmas holidays extended for UK schools to enable mass Covid testing

Staggered return for secondary school pupils at start of January term

HYDE, ENGLAND - JULY 16: Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School on July 16, 2020 in Hyde, England. The Government plan to spend GBP 1 billion to help pupils catch up with their education before September after spending months out of school during the coronavirus lockdown. (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

Secondary school pupils in the UK will return to school a week later to enable the rollout of mass Covid testing, the UK government has announced.

The move applies to secondary schools only, with primary schools set to return as planned on January 4.

"This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community," said UK Education Minister Gavin Williamson.

He said the new regime means "more pupils in school, the best place for their development and wellbeing."

Pupils in years 11 and 13 will go back first to continue their GCSE and A-level studies.

The news comes after the UK's top civil servant at the Department for Education, Susan Acland-Hood, would not deny reports over the delay when quizzed by the House of Commons' public accounts committee on Thursday.

Ms Acland-Hood had said there were no "plans to lengthen the Christmas holiday" but conceded that there were "conversations going on about exactly how parents and pupils will go back,"

Rumours of a delay surfaced earlier in the week after the UK's National Education Union implored government to move lessons online for the first week of term to allow schools sufficient time to train staff in the administering of Covid-19 tests.

Details on the precise nature of mass school testing remain scarce. As yet it is not known how often pupils will be tested, although staff will be tested weekly.

Government ministers have said that primary school mass testing is also in the offing.

Large swathes of east and south-east England to be placed into Tier 3

Large parts of east and south-east England are to follow London back into Tier 3 restrictions, UK Health Minister Matt Hancock hasannounced.

The areas going back into Tier 3 as of one minute past midnight on Saturday are Bedfordshire; Buckinghamshire; Berkshire; Peterborough; Hertfordshire; Surrey (with the exception of Waverley); Hastings and Rother on the Kent border of East Sussex; and Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant in Hampshire.

The direction of travel for tiers wasn't exclusively upward, however.

Bristol and North Somerset will move from Tier 3 to Tier 2, and Herefordshire will be moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1 thanks to its case rate of only 45 per 100,000.

UK furlough scheme to be extended by a month

UK Finance Minister Rishi Sunak also announced on Thursday that he would extend the furlough scheme by another month until the end of April, and that businesses would be able to get new Covid loans until the end of March.

The news came after Mr Sunak said he would set out longer-term plans at an annual budget on March 3 as he seeks to reduce public borrowing, currently on track to reach £400 billion ($539bn) this year.

Mr Sunak has previously faced criticism for not announcing furlough extensions until shortly before the furlough was due to expire, by which point some employers had already made staff redundant.