Senior minister Michael Gove told parents it was safe to send their kids back to school… then seconds later changed his mind.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “It is absolutely safe,” then said the only way to be sure was to “stay at home” as there is “always, always… a risk”.
Teaching unions fear it is unsafe for pupils and staff to go back to school on June 1.
And Labour wants the test and trace system to be put in place before schools return.
Teachers demanded clarity on the safety of going back to school after Michael Gove plunged the Government’s lockdown exit strategy into further confusion.
The Cabinet Office Minister initially promised teachers would be safe from Covid-19 as a phased return for primary school kids starts on June 1.
But seconds later he backtracked – admitting the only way to completely avoid infection was to stay at home.
The standoff between the Government and teaching unions intensified as Hartlepool council in Co Durham joined Liverpool in saying its schools will remain shut as cases locally continue to increase.
Labour and teaching unions insist a testing and tracking system should be a precondition for schools reopening, so that individual outbreaks can be controlled.
But testing again fell below the 100,000 daily target, with 91,206 tests carried out or dispatched in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday.
It came as sunseekers flocked to beaches over the weekend after a partial loosening of lockdown restrictions, despite the UK death toll rising by 170 to 34,636 on Sunday.
Beaches including Southend in Essex were packed, cars crammed into a car park at Durdle Door, Dorset, and hundreds of bikers were among visitors to Matlock Bath, Derbys.
The rush came despite pleas not to flock to hotspots after the “stay local” rule was lifted in England.
Asked about teachers’ safety, Mr Gove told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show: “Yes, teachers will be safe in schools…
“Some of the best leaders in current education have said that it is absolutely safe for children to return, absolutely safe for teachers and other staff to return as well.”
But asked if he could guarantee no teacher would be infected as a result of returning to the classroom, he said: “The only way ever to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely.
“There is always, in any loosening of these restrictions, a risk of people catching coronavirus.
“You can never eliminate risk, but… it’s extremely unlikely any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak, and if for any reason there are risks we can take steps to mitigate them.”
Teachers’ unions have said they will provide health and safety guidance for their members so they can say if they feel it is too dangerous to work.
But Mr Gove said: “The clear scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen accompanied with social distancing. Children only have one chance at education.
“Over the last decade we have made significant strides in closing the gap between the richest and poorest in our schools. This lockdown has put that at risk.”
He said the Government was on track to meet its target of 18,000 contact tracers by next week, with 17,200 now recruited. But last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said just 1,500 had signed up.
Hartlepool leaders said: “Given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise, Hartlepool borough council has been working with schools and we have agreed they will not reopen on Monday 1st June.
“Whilst we recognise the importance of schools reopening, we will be taking a measured and cautious approach.”
Liverpool has confirmed that its schools will only be open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers on June 1.
Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller described the lockdown changes as “nonsense”.
Manchester mayor Andy Burnham warned: “”Nervousness in the north about the R number will see more councils adopt their own approach on schools, as Liverpool, Gateshead and Hartlepool are doing.”
Liverpool’s head of children’s services, Steve Reddy, told parents: “Schools can only reopen to other pupils when it is safe to do so and not a moment before.”
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves said it was important for pupils to return to school “as soon as it is safe to do so”. But she told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday a test and trace strategy must be put in place to improve confidence.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma told last night’s No10 briefing safety is “absolutely paramount” as schools restart.
He announced extra cash for a potential vaccine, saying 30 million doses could be ready by September.
Poorer families are more wary of sending kids back to school – despite them having less home learning than wealthier children, a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals.