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Schools in England may not reopen after the February half-term, the prime minister has suggested.

Boris Johnson said the government’s priority was to get pupils back in the classroom "as soon as possible", but that whether this would happen after half-term in the middle of next month depended on a "number of things".

The PM told MPs on the Liaison Committee that the determining factors would be the success of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, the effect of new variants, any other possible changes in the virus, and the success of lockdown measures.

"What we’re seeing today, as I speak to you, are some early signs of progress in restraining the growth of the virus – some signs perhaps of flattening, of levelling off in some parts," Mr Johnson said.

"But it is far, far too early to say this means we can go into any kind of relaxation in the middle of February."

Schools in England have been closed – except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers – since a third lockdown was introduced by the government last week.

Announcing the shutdown in an address to the nation, the PM spoke of his hope the country would be able to "steadily move out of lockdown" once the most vulnerable had been offered a vaccine jab, which would involve "reopening schools after the February half-term and starting, cautiously, to move regions down the tiers".

As well as schools being closed, GCSEs and A-level exams have been cancelled for a second year in a row.

It emerged earlier on Wednesday that students could still be given "externally set tasks or papers" despite the cancellation of formal exams.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson set out how he wants exams regulator Ofqual to jointly consult with his department on "alternative arrangements" for the awarding of qualifications this year.

In a letter to Ofqual chief regulator Simon Lebus, Mr Williamson said grades should be awarded "based on teacher assessment" using a "breadth of evidence".

Meanwhile, there has been anger over some free school meals parcels sent to some families during lockdown.

Families eligible for free school meals have the option of food parcels or vouchers while schools are shut.

An image by Twitter user @RoadsideMum has sparked debate about the quality and quantity of food given to children, with many slamming the parcels as inadequate.

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