Schools across the country will close from Friday with only the children of key workers allowed to attend a basic education service, Boris Johnson has said.
The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have already announced school closures from Friday as parents keep children away and staff absences increase.
Government sources stressed that the definition of “key workers” would be wide so that critical parts of the economy as well as public services could continue to operate.
Children of those deemed key workers will be asked to go to a “skeleton” school, not necessarily their normal one. Emergency laws to be introduced in the Commons tomorrow will give ministers the power to compel schools to open.
NHS staff, police and other emergency workers as well as those working in retail, food and other goods supply chains will qualify for basic school service.
It remains unclear what the announcement means for this year’s GSCE and A levels but it is increasingly likely that they will not go ahead this summer.
Before the press conference Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said that school closures had always been part of the plan “should the medical and scientific advice state that was the right step to take and that we have reached the right moment to do so”.
Last week, however, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested that school closures delivered little benefit relative to the upheaval. He said that schools would have to close for at least 13 weeks to limit the spread of the virus and the chances of keeping children apart for that time was “zero”.
The measure is the latest escalation in response to a worsening forecast of the severity of the outbreak. The growing number of head teachers shutting their schools, despite the official guidence to stay open, also shaped the timing. Thousands of teachers have self-isolated since Monday when the health advice changed to social distancing, making it too difficult to keep some schools functioning.
Universities and companies are being urged to help expand coronavirus testing to NHS staff after health bosses acknowledged even an expansion promised by Mr Johnson would not be enough.
Testing is due to be expanded to 25,000 a day in over the next four weeks, up fivefold from current levels, the prime minister said. However, the expansion is still targeted at testing of all hospital patients, while NHS staff complain they cannot get their symptoms checked.
Some hospitals have begun testing their own staff in local labs as they find they are increasingly losing workers to a requirement that people must isolate for 14 days if anyone in their household gets a cough or fever.
Speaking immediately after the announcement Matthew Fell, CBI Chief UK Policy Director, said: “Difficult decisions are having to be made each day and people’s safety must always come first. Today’s announcement on school closures feels necessary, but of course will present challenges for parents and carers.
“Businesses will do all they can to help their employees in these unprecedented times. Companies will make every effort to offer flexible working, but many parents simply won’t be able to do their jobs and care for their children at the same time. With so many businesses already struggling with cashflow, government will urgently need to step in with additional support to employees who are unable to work because of school closures.”