LONDON (Reuters) -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a backlash on Monday over his decision to keep schools open, with angry parents keeping their children at home and complaining that other countries were doing more to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Britain has reported 1,372 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 35 deaths, fewer than in Italy, Spain and France, where schools have been shut, though the British numbers are expected to rise.
Johnson’s spokesman said the scientific advice was that school closures were not a step the government should be taking at this time, but a growing number of parents are refusing to send their children to school.
Several teachers who spoke to Reuters reported that a larger than usual number of children were absent on Monday. They did not wish to be quoted, saying that managers had asked staff not to talk to media.
The tags #Covid19Walkout and #CloseTheSchoolsNow were both trending on Twitter in Britain. Pupils were posting photos of densely packed school corridors and staircases, saying it was impossible to follow guidelines on social distancing.
"@BorisJohnson it’s time to act!” a user called Charlotte said in one of many tweets directed at the prime minister. "We need you to take action to SAVE LIVES! Why are we the only country not doing anything? This is so frustrating.”
On parliament’s website, a petition calling on the government to shut schools and colleges had attracted more than 590,000 signatures, and numbers were rising fast. Any petition on the website that gets more than 100,000 signatures must be considered for a parliamentary debate.
In Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, a mother whose daughter suffers from underlying health problems launched an emergency legal challenge against the government’s stance.
The education ministry said on Monday morning that the official guidance had not changed.
"Our advice to schools is to remain open unless otherwise advised by Public Health England,” a spokeswoman for the ministry said.
Some schools have already closed due to a member of staff or a pupil or a relative showing symptoms of the coronavirus, but the spokeswoman declined to say how many.
"It’s a dynamic situation. We’re not going to get into a numbers game. Some schools are opening, closing, opening again,” she said.
The education minister, Gavin Williamson, would meet school representatives later on Monday and information would be given to the public after that meeting, the spokeswoman said.