The Department for Education knew about the highly infectious new Covid-19 variant before ordering Greenwich council to rescind its request for schools to close early for Christmas, its most senior civil servant has admitted.
Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE’s permanent secretary, has written to Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, to apologise for what she described as a “mistake” during evidence on January 13.
I apologise for making this mistake during the session
Acland-Hood told MPs at the hearing that the department was not “aware of the announcement on the new variant” when the direction was issued, despite a statement in parliament on the strain more than an hour beforehand.
The government faced criticism last month after it used emergency powers under coronavirus legislation to order Greenwich to retract its request that schools in the south London borough close early after case rates soared.
The direction was issued at 4.54pm on December 14. At 3.38pm that day, Matthew Hancock, the health secretary, had warned the House of Commons about the new variant, which was particularly prevalent in the south east.
Questioned earlier this month about the events leading up to the direction, Acland-Hood said she believed the health secretary’s statement was made the following day.
But she was corrected at the time by Halfon, who had been alerted to the timeline of events by Schools Week.
In her letter, Acland-Hood said Halfon was “of course quite correct… It was the public press briefing on the new variant which was made on Tuesday December 15. I apologise for making this mistake during the session.”
She acknowledged that her department “became aware of the existence of the new variant of Covid-19 when the health secretary made his oral statement to the House of Commons”, which meant it knew about the strain when it issued the order.
But she said details on the variant were “limited”, and the statement “did not propose or suggest that there be a change of policy on education”.
“Discussions on the continuity direction to Greenwich took place during December 14, and it was issued after the health secretary’s statement; but at that stage the limited and early information about the new variant was not such as to have an impact on the decision.”
Acland-Hood may have corrected the record, but Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who made similar claims during the hearing on January 13, has not.
Williamson claimed at the time that his department was “in a position where the knowledge of the new variant was certainly not something that we had any understanding or knowledge of” when it issued the direction.
“At that stage, none of us was aware of the new variant and we were not aware of the impact that would ultimately have in terms of case rates and the impact more widely across the country, including in London.”
The education secretary also claimed in a Good Morning Britain interview last week that the new variant was not known about “even in mid-December”, after he was asked why some schools had reopened for just one day on Monday January 4.
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said Acland-Hood had “done the right thing” in correcting the record, and said Williamson should now “do the same”.
“It’s very important that evidence given to select committees is correct.”