Former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson opposed introducing face masks in schools during the pandemic because he was in “no surrender mode” and “didn’t want to give an inch” to unions, a senior official claimed.
In WhatsApp evidence presented at the Covid inquiry, the country’s top civil servant Simon Case claimed Williamson said they should “hold firm” on the decision on no masks in schools.
This is despite early research suggesting “some evidence” masks could reduce transmission “particularly in poorly ventilated and crowded indoor spaces”.
‘Lives put at risk over political vendetta’
Kate Bell, assistant general secretary at the TUC union, said the Conservatives “put politics before people”, adding: “Education leaders righty raised concerns about the need to protect staff and children in schools.
“But these warnings were dismissed out of hand due to vindictiveness towards unions.
“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.”
Dominic Cummings, ex-chief adviser to the former prime minister Boris Johnson, had asked Case on August 26, 2020 “what’s the true reason” for a U-turn on masks.
Case replied that they recommended to Johnson “weeks ago” they create “permissive guidance” around masks “because we could foresee it was going to be a drama” in September.
Williamson then discussed it at a Covid meeting but because at that stage “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”.
Case said Johnson gave him “full support in this approach”.
U-turn days before on masks
The day before, on August 25, 2020, it was revealed how staff and older pupils would be expected to wear face coverings in schools following the government U-turn.
It followed growing pressure in the wake of a similar decision in Scotland and changes to World Health Organisation guidelines.
Weeks earlier, on July 24, parliamentary “rapid response” research found there was “some evidence” masks could reduce transmission “particularly in poorly ventilated and crowded indoor spaces”.
They could also “offer some protection by limiting transmission of virus from the wearer”.
In his message, Case said he advocated the shift because “we cannot hold a line on anything,” adding: “Holding firm successfully would have meant Chris [Whitty, chief medical officer] and Patrick [Vallance, former chief scientific adviser] publicly saying WHO/Scotland wrong on science, which they wouldn’t do.
“It also would have meant PM holding a position under sustained attack, which he won’t do. All of this would have further dented patent (sic) confidence in safety of schools, resulting in increasing our chances of succeeding in the key test of this period (getting schools open next week).”
He concluded Johnson “backs bullshit ‘no surrender’ ideas from” some ministers including Williamson and “totally regrets it later”, adding: “We really, really need a reshuffle and totally new approach to how this gov’t works.”
Case also said that if it wasn’t “for shadow of exams fiasco, it wouldn’t have been such a ‘U-turn’ issue”.
That summer, ministers were also forced to U-turn and award students centre assessed GCSE and A-level grades after widespread criticism of its approach after exams had been cancelled.
‘Prioritised point scoring’
He also added “the team can’t deliver anything under these circumstances. A weak team (as we have got – Hancock, Williamson …) Definitely cannot succeed in these circs. IT HAS TO STOP!”
Williamson was knighted in May last year.
Leaked text messages earlier this year also revealed Williamson had said unions “really really do just hate work”.
Daniel Kebede, National Education Union general secretary, said several weeks before the WhatsApp exchange, the union had highlighted the role of masks with Williamson.
Kebede said Williamson “prioritised point scoring over serious engagement with the representatives of hundreds of thousands of education workers about the best way of suppressing the spread of Covid-19 in schools”.
A government spokesperson said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and we are committed to learning from the Covid Inquiry’s findings which will play a key role in informing the government’s planning and preparations for the future.”
Williamson’s office has been approached for comment.