Boris Johnson is facing one of the toughest tests of his premiership as he attempts to persuade parents to send children back to school and workers to return to their offices.
On the day MPs return to the Commons after the summer recess, schools in England and Wales are re-opening, with the government desperately hoping for a mass return to classrooms.
Ministers believe getting children back to school is vital to end the widespread working from home which has turned city centres into ghost towns and led to massive job losses on the high street.
And on day one of a new term at Westminster, the prime minister and senior cabinet colleagues are facing tough questions from MPs on their overall COVID strategy and blunders like the A-levels fiasco.
Tory backbenchers are returning to the Commons in a fractious mood, furious over the exams debacle, government U-turns and reports of big tax hikes being plotted by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
In the latest climbdown, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has signalled he is ready to bow to Labour demands to postpone next year’s GCSE and A-level exams from May until June or July to give pupils more teaching time.
He has told The Daily Telegraph: “I know there’s some concern about next year’s exams and that’s why we’ve been working with Ofqual on changes we can make to help pupils when they take GCSE and A-levels next year.
“Ofqual will continue to work with the education sector and other stakeholders on whether there should be a short delay to the GCSE, A and AS level exam timetable in 2021 with the aim of creating more teaching time.”
The embattled education secretary, who is expected to face renewed calls from opposition MPs to resign, has also issued an 11th-hour appeal to parents to return their children to school.
“For many, today marks the first day of a new school year, with thousands of children set to walk through their school gates again as schools across the country begin to reopen for full-time education for all pupils,” he said.
“I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been but I do know how important it is for children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their development and wellbeing too.
“But it is down to the sheer hard work of so many teachers and school staff that from today pupils will be able to learn in their classrooms together again.
“It has not been easy for parents nor schools, but we could not have got to this point without your support and I cannot say thank you enough for this.”
The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, accused by Tory MPs during the summer of backing teaching unions’ opposition to a full return to school, is demanding a Commons statement from Mr Williamson.
“For millions of families across England, this week will be a mixture of excitement and anxiety,” he said. “Excitement for children who will be back in the classroom for the first time in months.
“But anxiety for teachers and parents about a year ahead that is full of uncertainty because of a pandemic that continues to cast its shadow over children’s education.
“I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary dedication of our teachers and school staff who have worked tirelessly over the summer to make sure schools can reopen safely.
“Labour want and expect children to be back at school. Every day that schools were closed was a day of opportunity, learning and support lost.
“This situation was worsened by the exams fiasco and the government’s chaotic approach to education.
“We cannot keep repeating those same mistakes. Young people’s futures cannot be held back by the Conservatives’ incompetence.
“That is why the education secretary must come to parliament to tell us how he will protect our children’s futures. He needs to explain how he will make up for the damage already done, bring pupils up to speed and mitigate against the ongoing risk from the pandemic.”
The prime minister is also facing criticism from his own backbenchers over government “own goals” and U-turns that have left his MPs with “egg on their face” after defending policies that are then reversed.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said the committee’s executives expected to meet with the prime minister in the near future to relay the concerns of backbenchers.
“I think there is a lot of sympathy for the fact it has been unprecedented, but then I think we mustn’t make other own goals,” he said.
“We may have a big majority, but that still doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be as competent as possible as a government.”
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