(Bloomberg) -- After a difficult week, Boris Johnson got some relief on Friday, with a positive reception for his support package for disadvantaged schoolchildren and news that scientists see the threat from coronavirus decreasing in the U.K.
The prime minister needed a break. Tuesday saw him u-turn on free school meals after pressure from a 22-year-old soccer player, and Thursday closed with the admission that an overdue mobile phone app, which ministers said would help stop the virus spreading, had failed.
Johnson’s announcement of a 1 billion-pound ($1.2 billion) fund to help children who have missed out on classes because of the virus was a reflection of the difficulties his government has had with school closures, but at least it was news that was welcomed. Robert Halfon, chairman of Parliament’s Education Committee, said it was “great.”
“The problem has been that they’ve been focused on trying to avoid death and destitution -- saving lives and the economy,” he said. “It was hard for education to get a voice. This is the first sign that it’s part of the policy triangle.”
The second boost of the day came when the U.K.’s chief medical officers announced they had lowered the country’s virus alert level to 3 from 4, meaning transmission of the virus was no longer “high or exponentially rising” and lockdown measures could be eased.
Johnson had already triggered an easing of those restrictions while the threat level was unchanged, and the finding suggested his decision to relax curbs two weeks ago hasn’t led to a new spike in infections.
British government ministers currently need to take comfort where they can find it. The country has had the most deaths in Europe from the virus and Johnson’s administration has been criticized for being slow to respond at the start of the crisis and for a series of missteps, several involving schools.
In early May, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he wanted all primary-age children back in schools by the start of July. In early June, that plan was scrapped, and only some age-groups were allowed back. The changing targets and guidance have made it difficult for teachers to make plans.
Halfon said the lockdown was hitting the most disadvantaged children hardest. “We know from academic studies that two million children haven’t done any schoolwork at all,” he said. “Four million have had hardly any contact with their teachers. We are damaging the life chances of these kids.”
With Friday’s funding to help those children, Johnson tried to reassure the parents of others that he had a plan for them, too.
“Provided we can make the classroom safe -- and I think we can -- I want every child, every student, every pupil back in September,” the prime minister told Sky News. “I’m sure we can get it done.”
Getting children back to school is also an essential part of getting their parents back to work. But it’s clear many parents fear their children will be infected if they send them in.
“Schools are safe to come back to,” Johnson insisted. “Now is the time to come back.”
The prime minister said the government now understands much more about the disease, and is better placed to tackle local infections as they come up.
“Yes, it has been a horrible shock for the country and for the world,” he said. “I hope, as we go forward into the autumn, people will be much, much more confident.”
But convincing people the virus is under control and they can return to their normal lives may be the toughest sell that Johnson has had to make.
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