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Express & Star readers urge rethink over sending children back to school

Coronavirus | Published:

Almost two thirds of people said it was too early for children to be going back to school as lockdown measures are eased.

Education Secretary and South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson has faced calls for a rethink over reopening schools

Express & Star readers have urged ministers to rethink plans to open the region’s schools next month.

In our survey, nearly 60 per cent of more than 5,000 respondents said they felt it was unsafe for children to return to school during the coronavirus lockdown.

Government plans for a restart before the summer holidays were backed by less than a quarter of readers, while one in five said they were unsure.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wants to see some nursery and primary pupils return to school from June 1.

But the plans have met opposition from teaching unions, headteachers and the British Medical Association.

More coverage on schools row:

They say it is not safe for schools to reopen until the national test and trace scheme has been rolled out, while there are also concerns about social distancing.

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Responding to the survey results, South Staffordshire MP Mr Williamson said: “Everyday that children are not at school they are missing out on so much, not just in terms of learning, but also their welfare and their physical and mental wellbeing.

"I would not be saying that we should be bringing schools back if I hadn’t been told it was safe to do so.”

Shadow Business Minister and Wolverhampton South East MP Pat McFadden, said: “No option will be entirely risk free.

“But I hope there can be a dialogue between teachers and the Government that allows schools to return, even if only on a phased basis at first.”

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PM backed over Covid response

Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been backed by Star readers – with the PM urged to get the country back to work once it is safe to do so.

Seven in 10 readers said the Government had either dealt with the pandemic well or that mistakes were understandable given the unpredictable nature of the disease.

And two thirds said they supported plans to get more people back into work, although the majority of people were wary of lifting lockdown measures too soon.

The results came in the Star’s coronavirus survey, which has captured the mood of the region over the last two months of lockdown.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Covid-19 response has been backed by readers

More than 5,000 readers responded, helping to paint a vivid picture of people’s hopes and fears during this unprecedented crisis.

The survey ran over three days last week, and posed 16 questions relating to life under lockdown.

We wanted to gauge your views on the Government’s handling of the crisis, which has been a major talking point in recent weeks.

Mr Johnson’s administration has come under fire over issues including testing, PPE supplies, care homes and whether it was too slow in bringing in lockdown measures.

Ministers say they have done all they can to keep the public safe, but Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer accused them of being “slow in nearly all of the major decisions”.

Our readers are keeping faith with Mr Johnson, with 31 per cent of people saying he has dealt with the crisis “well” in difficult circumstances, and 39 per cent saying any mistakes were “understandable”.

Thirty per cent said they believed the PM – who himself was struck down with the virus – had made the crisis worse by handling it “badly”.

Majority against lockdown relaxation

The vast majority of readers (75 per cent) said they understood the new lockdown rules, which were modified eight days ago, with the slogan changed from “stay home” to “stay alert”.

And while people were desperate to see their family and friends, 58 per cent of respondents said they were against relaxing the rules further at this moment in time.

More than four out of five people said they had stuck to the lockdown, with just 17 per cent admitting they had broken rules to meet family and friends.

A large number of vehicles gather at the foot of the Wrekin as people take advantage of the lockdown easement over the weekend

As part of the Government’s strategy the lockdown measures have been slightly eased in a bid to kickstart an economy that has been mothballed since March 23.

Since then millions of workers have been away from work, with many of them reliant on the furlough scheme which was brought in by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in a bid to deter firms from laying off employees.

Readers who responded to our survey were keen to see the region moving again, with two-thirds saying they supported plans to get people back to work.

And the furlough scheme – which pays workers up to 80 per cent of their wages capped at £2,500 a month and has now been extended until October – was unsurprisingly popular, with more than eight out of 10 people backing it.

A near-deserted Bullring yesterday

With the economy certain to take a massive hit in the coming months as the country attempts to recover from the pandemic, there is speculation that tax rises could feature in Mr Sunak’s next Budget.

But Star readers were split over the idea of paying more in tax to help reduce the UK’s burgeoning debt, with 54-46 per cent in favour of tax rises.

There was also opposition to plans to reopen schools next month, with only 23 per cent of people in our survey supporting the Government’s position.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the South Staffordshire MP, said that while he understands people’s anxiety, schools needed to open as soon as it was safe to do so for the sake of our children’s future.

Mr Williamson wants to reopen schools on June 1 for those in reception, year one and year six.

However, the British Medical Association has joined teaching unions and headteachers in opposing the move, saying the number of coronavirus infections remain too high for schools to be safely run.

People relax in Centenary Square in Birmingham yesterday after the introduction of measures to bring the country out of lockdown

Support for NHS heroes

The crisis had expected to see the NHS put under incredible strain, with warnings that hospitals across the West Midlands would be filled to capacity by mid-April.

It prompted NHS bosses to rapidly increase capacity, a move which included the construction of a number of Nightingale field hospitals, one of which is at Birmingham’s NEC.

So far our health trusts appear to have coped remarkably well, and despite issues with testing and PPE for staff and patients, none of the region’s hospitals have been forced to turn away any Covid-19 patients.

Hospital admissions for patients with the disease have been reducing drastically in recent weeks, leaving health bosses to turn their attentions to the backlog of non-Covid patients which has built up.

In the survey our readers were full of praise for the NHS, with 83 per cent saying hospitals had coped well under testing circumstances.

Public transport hesitation

The issue of public transport has also been paramount during the lockdown, with thousands of bus, train and tram journeys cancelled as providers scaled back schedules.

At one point public transport usage across the region was down by 90 per cent, although the figures have started to creep up again in recent days.

A quiet New Street Station in Birmingham despite people gradually heading back to work

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has called for services to be ramped up so people can adhere to social distancing measures.

However, Star readers remain concerned about the prospect of using public transport, with 89 per cent of people saying they would not feel safe using it in the current circumstances.

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Meanwhile a majority of readers were against the return of professional football in June.

The Premier League is desperate to restart the season next month, with clubs meeting regularly in a bid to thrash out plans to play out the remainder of the campaign.

The Government has said bringing football back would boost the nation’s morale, and has given clubs the green light to resume training in preparation for the restart.

Wolves players are already undergoing testing and players back in individual training – with the club said to be eager to restart their battle for a Champions League spot – while Villa are in a relegation dogfight.

Max Kilman during an isolated training session at Wolves' training ground (AMA)

West Bromwich Albion, meanwhile, are hoping to secure promotion from the Championship.

However, players, club chiefs and doctors have all raised concerns about the plans, while the top police official in the West Midlands, David Jamieson, warned he could not guarantee the safety of fans and his officers, even if games were held at neutral venues and behind closed doors.

League Two clubs including Walsall have already voted to end the season early.

In our survey 56 per cent said they opposed plans for football to return in June.

Readers were also asked about their own health during the pandemic.

Medical professionals have expressed fears about a growing mental health crisis during the lockdown, which has left many people isolated.

A commuter walks past a thank you message for the NHS in London

Baroness Barran, the Government’s loneliness tsar, said the lockdown had opened the country’s eyes to the issue and made it easier for people to talk about it.

But she warned of a post-lockdown crisis if increasing cases of depression were not addressed.

Just over two in five people said their mental health had suffered since the start of the lockdown, while nearly six in 10 (58 per cent) said they were anxious about the future and could not see an end to the crisis.

A total of 35 per cent of people said they had used some of their extra free time to increase the amount of exercise they were doing.

The good nature of people in the region shone through in the survey results, with almost three quarters saying they had helped others during the crisis.

Just under 70 per cent said they felt society had become “kinder” during the pandemic.

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