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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the government has a moral duty to ensure children return to school next month.

Most pupils have been out of the classroom since the UK went into lockdown in March, though some primary-age children have returned.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Johnson said “keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”.

Britain’s official death toll from the coronavirus is more than 46,500, the highest in Europe.

Scientists say the UK may have reached the limit of how much it can relax lockdown restrictions without causing a new surge in coronavirus infections. They say some things may have to close — even the country’s beloved pubs — so that schools can reopen fully.

Most UK schools start the new term in early September, but those in Scotland begin to reopen this week.

The number of British companies planning to cut staff numbers in June was five times higher than in the same month a year earlier, in an ominous sign of COVID-19’s economic impact.

Figures obtained by the BBC show that 1778 companies informed the government of plans to cut a total of 139,000 jobs. A year earlier the figure was 345 companies announcing a total of 24,000 job losses.

Businesses are required to inform the Insolvency Service if they plan to cut 20 or more jobs.

During the pandemic the government has been paying the salaries of almost 10 million furloughed workers. Economists are predicting a surge in unemployment when that program ends in October.

The UK economy shrank by more than 20 per cent in the first half of 2020, and despite some signs of recovery the Bank of England says the economy will end 2020 9.5 per cent smaller than it started the year.