Covid

Williamson ‘considered resigning’ over ‘panic’ Jan 2021 school closures

Former ed sec tells Covid inquiry he did not have 'complete autonomy' over closure decisions, and claims his advice was ignored

Former ed sec tells Covid inquiry he did not have 'complete autonomy' over closure decisions, and claims his advice was ignored

Shutting schools to most pupils in January 2021 was a “panic decision, made without having children’s interests front and centre”, Sir Gavin Williamson has told the Covid inquiry.

The former education secretary also said in his witness statement that he “did very briefly consider whether I should resign” over the closures, but feared it would “distract attention away from the key policy issues”.

Williamson, who served in the role between July 2019 and September 2021, has faced widespread criticism for his handling of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools.

He presided over the 2020 exam grading crisis, repeated U-turns over masks in schools and free school meals vouchers and the last-minute move to partially close schools again in January 2021.

But in his written testimony to the inquiry, Williamson claimed he “did not have complete autonomy to make core decisions, especially those regarding school closure and school reopening”.

“The parameters and timeframe in which I could input into decisions was set by the PM and No.10 officials.”

Input ‘significantly constrained’

He said it was “important to understand how decisions were made in practice during the pandemic.

Prime minister Boris Johnson “in most cases would have made the de facto decision well before it reached cabinet or relevant cabinet committee”, Williamson said.

“This meant that if you were not involved in the initial informal discussions with the PM and his advisors, your ability to input into the decision was significantly constrained.”

Boris Johnson

In December 2020, ministers initially planned to reopen schools to all pupils the following month, with a one-week delay for secondary schools to allow for testing.

But as transmission rates soared, they made several last-minute changes to their plans, causing chaos in schools.

In the end, primaries outside hotspot areas reopened to all pupils for just one day before attendance was again restricted to vulnerable and key worker children.

In his evidence, Williamson said he agreed the initial proposals for a delay so everyone in secondaries could be tested before returning to class. He did this “on the understanding that the Ministry of Defence would be supporting this effort and NHS Test and Trace would be leading the roll out testing in schools and colleges”.

However, on December 16, “it emerged that no approach about off-site Military Aid to the Civil Authority (MACA) assistance had been made to the MOD by DHSC [the Department of Health], and NHS Test and Trace would not support the delivery of the testing programme in schools and colleges”.

He said this was “in complete contradiction to what DHSC and NHS Test and Trace were saying prior to the meeting and indeed what we had agreed with them”.

No 10 ‘ratcheted up demand’

Williamson eventually agreed to the proposals, and “at that point, I understood that this would be sufficient to enable schools to open in January 2021 to all pupils”.

“I understood we had reached a settled position and we now needed to operationalise it. However, in the weeks that followed, No.10 and DHSC ratcheted up the demand on schools, colleges and DfE, especially regarding the testing programme and further delaying the start of the term.”

He said his advice was initially taken into account, but “on the final decision to close schools on January 4, 2021, I consider that the PM did not give my advice sufficient weight or sufficiently take children’s interests into account”.

He added the decision to close in January was “wrong on two grounds”.

“My concern was that a second set of restrictions would set back children’s educational recovery and progress even further.”

He also felt the closure was “wholly unnecessary”.

“We had seen exceptionally high rates of COVID-19 in a number of northern towns and cities, yet had been able to keep schools open in these areas over this period. While this would be exceptionally challenging at a national level, I felt it was the right thing to do, as keeping children in school was so beneficial to them.

“I still believe that the decision did not sufficiently take children’s interests or wellbeing into account. I believe that the decision to close schools in January 2021 was not required. It was a panic decision, made without having children’s interests front and centre.”

March 2020 closure ‘against my advice’

Williamson’s written statement also states that he lobbied Johnson to keep schools open until Easter 2020. They were closed on March 23 following a “discombobulating sea change” in a meeting on March 17.

The decision “went against my detailed advice” and “meant that DfE did not have sufficient time to prepare and publish guidance to support schools on remote education”.

“More importantly, it gave schools and colleges no time to prepare to deliver remote education while also juggling the difficult tasks of putting in place arrangements for vulnerable children and [critical worker children] over the Easter holidays as well as then delivering face-to-face education to them under new social distancing requirements.”

The timing of the decisions also meant there was “simply not the time available to conduct a full documented analysis on the potential impact of different closure options”, he claimed.

Williamson ‘frequently deletes’ his WhatsApps

A theme throughout the Covid inquiry so far has been the lack of access to WhatsApp messages from key government figures at the time, including Johnson and current PM Rishi Sunak.

Williamson said in his witness statement he did “not have copies of any texts or WhatsApp messages, as it is my practice to frequently delete such messages and not to enable back ups”.

“I am not in any event a very active user of such messaging services.”

He added that he did exchange messages “on occasions” with others providing evidence to the inquiry, including Johnson and former health secretary Matt Hancock.

“Those messages may have mentioned the decisions to close and re-open schools and early years settings, but I would not describe any of them as being part of the decision making process.”

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