Covid

Covid: ‘Williamson threw schools under the bus’

Inquiry hears former education secretary opposed face masks in schools to avoid 'surrender' to unions

Inquiry hears former education secretary opposed face masks in schools to avoid 'surrender' to unions

An education leader says he “will never forgive” Sir Gavin Williamson after it emerged the former education secretary opposed face masks in schools because he didn’t want to “surrender” to unions.

Vic Goddard, the co-principal of Passmores Academy in Essex, lost his site manager of 20 years during the pandemic.

“Literally every day [I think], ‘could I have done more?’ That [Williamson] was willing to throw us under the bus is just not good enough. It doesn’t get much lower,” he said. “I will never forgive him.”

The independent Covid inquiry – set up to examine the UK’s response to the virus – heard several explosive claims this week that shed more light into political decision-making relating to schools.

Dominic Cummings, a former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, had asked the country’s top civil servant Simon Case on August 26, 2020 “the true reason” for a U-turn on masks in schools.

After mounting pressure, masks were recommended for staff and older pupils when they returned to school.

Case replied that civil servants had told Johnson “weeks ago” that he should back “permissive guidance” around masks “because we could foresee it was going to be a drama” in September.

Education secretary was in ‘no surrender’ mode

Williamson discussed the move at a Covid meeting, but because “it was unions pressing for masks (no science back-up), Gavin was in ‘no surrender’ mode and didn’t want to give an inch to the unions, so said we should hold firm”.

This was despite early research suggesting “some evidence” masks reduced transmission “particularly in poorly ventilated and crowded indoor spaces”.

Alan Simpson
Alan Simpson

Goddard said many leaders in education wanted to “do the right thing, and then you hear that’s the regard they gave us. It’s heartbreaking.”

Alan Simpson, Passmores Academy’s site manager, died from Covid in March 2021 aged 54.

While the school was unable to mark his death at the time, it later renamed a hall after him. Goddard also walked Simpson’s daughter down the aisle about a month after his death.

A written statement to the inquiry from Lee Cain, a former No 10 director of communications, also revealed Boris Johnson “said we needed to draw a line in the sand on public spending commitments” in relation to funding school meals for pupils not in school.

Cain said this was a “huge blunder” and “clearly not the place to draw that line – something the PM was told by his senior team”.

‘Lack of guidance’ for pregnant women

Meanwhile Helen MacNamara, a former deputy secretary of the Cabinet, had to flag a “lack of guidance for women who might be pregnant or were pregnant, and what those who were key workers should do” during the pandemic.

She said this was “particularly significant” in education, given the demographic of its workforce.

Michelle Kelly, a former head who is medically retired because of long Covid and who set up a support group for education staff with the condition, said the disregard for teaching staff and children was unbelievable.

Michelle Kelly
Michelle Kelly

“How could they do that without actually thinking about anybody else? They didn’t care.”

Tina Sparrow, an assistant head at Passmores, said she was “astounded at the ridiculousness and single-mindedness of [Williamson’s] comments. It made me really angry.”

Long covid had forced her to switch from 10-hour days “running around the school” to remote administrative work with reduced hours.

“It’s completely ruined my professional and personal life.”

She was now unable to walk for long distances, could not drive and suffered from days of fatigue.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows 139 teaching and educational professionals aged 20 to 64 died from Covid-related illness between March and December 2020.

But it stopped recording the data in January 2021, while Covid deaths were still widespread.

Kate Bell, assistant general secretary at the TUC union, said: “Parents, pupils, school staff and the public will be horrified to learn that lives were put at risk because ministers were pursuing a petty political vendetta. This can never happen again.”

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