PRESSURE is growing on the Government to abandon plans to reopen secondary schools in January amid concerns it could cause further spikes in coronavirus cases.

Teaching unions have warned that allowing students to return will put them at risk of catching the new variants of Covid-19.

Members of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have also reportedly told ministers schools reopening could cause infections to spiral – even if another national lockdown was introduced.

Earlier this month, the Government said exam-year students would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

A meeting was held between ministers, Downing Street officials and the Department for Education on Monday to discuss the plan further, but the DfE would not comment on its outcome.

The Times reported Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove were among those who suggested that a delayed reopening would be necessary, while Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wanted to “push ahead” with the current plan which involves mass testing of students.

The Telegraph also reported that Sage advisers have suggested that keeping the majority of schools closed in January may keep the R number, the rate of infections, below one.

It comes as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that 1,500 military personnel would be deployed to support the implementation of the testing systems to allow pupils to return.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, wrote to the Education Secretary on Monday demanding further action on school safety.

The letter urged Mr Williamson to allow schools to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed to be vulnerable or the children of key workers, in the highest tier areas.

The union is also asking the Government to publish new safety guidance in light of the new Covid-19 variant, introduce mandatory face coverings within schools and give staff priority access to the vaccine.

Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union (NEU), have also written to Mr Williamson, along with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, reiterating calls for schools and colleges to remain closed for at least the first two weeks of January, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

The letter asks the Government to share the evidence and advice received from experts about schools reopening from the chief medical officer.

“You certainly cannot expect education staff to show good will towards your plans for education if you do not at least share all the information you have about this dreadful disease with them,” it states.

Mr Gove said he was confident schools could reopen in the new year with a staggered approach, with 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.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that the armed forces had been put on standby to help put the testing systems in place.

The majority of the personnel will form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions needing guidance on the testing process and set-up of the testing facilities.

Students will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role, and teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.

Mr Wallace said that military personnel would bring “considerable experience of testing across the country and the successful school pilots conducted this autumn.”

It comes as scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children.

The head of one of the UK’s biggest teaching unions has called for schools to remain closed until Covid-19 testing schemes have been set up properly.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “Eminent scientists have said that schools should remain closed; that’s what unions I think have been responding to.”

Speaking to BBC Breakfast this morning, he said: “None of this is to create problems because we know those tests are going to help more young people to keep from being disrupted – it’s a really good idea.”

Mr Barton welcomed the Government’s plans for soldiers to offer remote support for testing, but warned it was unlikely to be enough.

“We’re educationists, we can support the Government and it is good we are going to have some members of the Army,” he said.

“But for 3,500 secondary schools, 1,500 troops doing webinars probably isn’t the Government response that we were looking for.”

Mr Barton said the ASCL union supported the phased opening of schools with a testing system already in place, set up with the support of health services and the military.

He told BBC Breakfast: “What that would then allow would be the phased introduction of children from next week and for us not to be on the back foot in implementing something we haven’t heard about until the day before Christmas Eve, but to be able to do it in a planned way.

“Those people that are calling for a delay to young people coming back (to school) are doing it on the principle that we should get this testing right and we should listen to what the scientists are saying.

“If a Government minister says ‘whatever the scientists say, we think young people should be in school’ then we have every right to say ‘can you tell us why you know better than the scientists please?’”

His thoughts were echoed by Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, one of the largest multi-academy trusts in England, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We would ask Government to pause, to come up with a clear strategy for the continuity of education.

“We think that means a short delay to think things through.

“We would suggest a week or two’s delay to think it through, to do it well – and we think that if you really care about kids you would do this well – to invest now, to give time now makes sense.”