Boris Johnson has denied being too optimistic in saying 8 March will be the earliest date that schools can reopen.
On Wednesday, the prime minister confirmed England’s national lockdown will remain in place for at least the next six weeks as he told MPs: “We hope it will be safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday, 8 March, with other economic and social restrictions being removed then or thereafter as and when the data permits.”
Some teachers, however, have suggested 8 March may be too soon. One union accused him of “misplaced optimism”.
Johnson is known for his optimistic statements, and this has often been the case during the pandemic.
Watch: Boris Johnson targets 8 March as earliest date for reopening England's schools
On 17 July, for example, he predicted a “significant return to normality from November at the earliest”, when in fact this was the month that he imposed the second of three national lockdowns.
On 16 December, Johnson said it would be “frankly inhuman” to “ban Christmas” – before effectively doing just that three days later as the COVID situation worsened.
At Wednesday’s Downing Street press conference, however, the PM denied he was being over-optimistic about the reopening of schools, saying: “Opening schools is a huge priority for us all, for the country, for parents up and down the land.
“What we’re saying is that 8 March is the earliest date by which we think we might responsibly be able to do that.”
He said the decision will depend on the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, whether they are working in preventing serious disease, and if the COVID-19 infection rate continues to fall.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said ahead of the press conference: “If we come out too early, we will end up in lockdown again.”
She added: “In setting out a potential date of 8 March, falling once again into his characteristic and too often misplaced optimism, he is pre-empting a decision that will have to be made in mid-February at the very earliest.”
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, also said the “announcement of arbitrary dates for schools to reopen to all pupils can be profoundly unhelpful to parents and to those working in schools”.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green, on the other hand, told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Drive programme on Wednesday night that she can “understand” why Johnson is targeting 8 March.
“I think it’s a date we really must do everything we possibly can to meet, because children have clearly seen huge disruption to their learning over the last few months.”
But Green added: “It’s not enough just to wish a date, the PM has to have a plan.”
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown