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Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen here at 10 Downing Street in London on March 18, 2020, announced on Wednesday that all schools will close on Friday and that exams scheduled for May and June will be cancelled.EDDIE MULHOLLAND/AFP/Getty Images

Britain has finally joined other countries in closing schools after days of controversy and confusion over why children continued to attend classes while the new coronavirus quickly spread.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that all schools will close on Friday and that exams scheduled for May and June will be cancelled. Some schools will remain open to provide daycare services for the children of health-care providers and other key workers if necessary, he added.

“Looking at where we are now, we think now that we must apply further downward pressure on [the rise in confirmed cases] by closing the schools,” Mr. Johnson told a press conference. “The objective is to slow the spread of the virus and we judge that this is the right moment to do that.”

Britain had been an outlier among European countries by taking a more gradual approach to the virus. While France, Spain, Belgium and Italy have announced countrywide lockdowns to stop the spread of the COVID-19 disease, Britain’s measures have been largely voluntary and Mr. Johnson has steadfastly resisted closing schools. Health officials argued that children were not particularly susceptible to the illness and that closing schools would increase pressure on health-care workers who have children.

However, pressure had been mounting for days to change tack as a growing number of parents kept children home and dozens of private schools defied the government and shut down.

“Simply expecting all schools to remain open is becoming increasingly untenable and will end up being counterproductive because closures will happen without co-ordination,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told reporters on Tuesday.

By Wednesday morning, Mr. Johnson was signalling a shift in his position. He told the House of Commons that a decision on schools was “imminent,” and hours later, officials in Scotland and Wales announced that schools there would be closed as of Friday.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, insisted on Wednesday that schools were not unsafe and that children were at a lower risk of catching the disease. "The reason for this [school closings] is just because it can knock down further the transmission of this disease,” he said Wednesday. “To bring it down and protect those people who might get a much more serious version.”

Britain has seen fewer cases of the virus than other large European countries, but the number has been rising sharply. It now has 2,626 confirmed cases, a jump of 676 in one day. The number of deaths also reached 104 on Wednesday after the National Health Service in England reported 32 deaths in one day; all of those who died had underlying health issues.

Italy remains the epicentre in Europe for the virus. The number of cases there has increased to 35,713 and nearly 3,000 people have died. Spain is the second-worst hit country, with around 14,000 infections and more than 600 deaths.

London is Britain’s main hot spot and one-third of the deaths have occurred in the capital. Mr. Johnson has not ordered people to stay home and instead the government has only advised everyone to work remotely if possible and to keep out of pubs, restaurants and other social venues.

On Wednesday, he said he wouldn’t rule out taking further steps. When asked specifically if he would consider locking down London, Mr. Johnson replied: “We keep everything under continuous review and we will not hesitate to bring forward further and faster measures where we think that is necessary.”

The government has also faced criticism over a lack of testing. Mr. Johnson said the number of daily tests would increase to 25,000 from around 7,500 currently. However, it will take several weeks to get to the higher level.

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