Boris Johnson has failed to guarantee that schools in England will reopen on time next month, after minsters warned a new strain of the coronavirus pandemic was out of control. 

Teaching unions have called for the return of schools to be delayed after it emerged that the mutation is highly contagious. 

At the weekend the health secretary Matt Hancock said he could not rule out school closures of the kind seen during the first lockdown in March as the government battles the threat. 

The new variant forced the prime minister to cancel the Christmas plans of millions on Saturday. 

The Northern Ireland health minister has already suggested that schools there are unlikely to reopen as expected after the Christmas holidays. 

At a press conference in Downing Street, Mr Johnson said he wanted to stick to the current plan of a staggered start for schools in January “if we possibly can”.    

He added that the common sense thing to do was to “follow the path of the epidemic”. 

In a sign that ministers understand the fatigue of millions of parents who spent months trying to balance the demands of jobs and full-time childcare, the government has repeatedly said that schools will be the last thing to close in an outbreak.   

In a bid to strike a positive note, the prime minister promised: “We can certainly look forward to a very, very different world for this country from Easter onwards”.

Scientists have expressed concern that the new mutant strain of coronavirus can more easily infect children.  

Data suggests it is better able to spread amongst young people than other strains of the disease.

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, said: “There is a hint that it is has a higher propensity to infect children. That may perhaps explain some of the differences but we haven’t established any sort of causality on that but we can see that in the data.”

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News – Boris Johnson fails to guarantee reopening of schools in January