Education secretary Gavin Williamson has claimed he did not know about the new strain of coronavirus before ordering a council to keep its schools open, despite one of his colleagues having warned of the dangers of the variant over an hour before the direction was issued.
The government sparked widespread criticism when it issued a direction to the London Borough of Greenwich last month ordering the council to withdraw guidance urging schools to close early for Christmas.
At that stage, none of us were aware of the new variant and we were not aware of the impact that would ultimately have
The council’s leader, Dan Thorpe, appealed to leaders to move to online learning for most of the last week of term amid concerns about a new strain of the coronavirus that was spreading quickly in London and the south east of England.
During a hearing of the Parliamentary education committee this morning, both Williamson and Department for Education permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood claimed they did not know about the government’s concerns about the new strain of the virus.
However, Parliamentary records show that health secretary Matthew Hancock warned about the dangers of the new variant in the House of Commons at 3.38pm on December 14, and the direction to Greenwich Council was issued at 4.54pm, over an hour later.
Williamson told MPs this morning that the direction was issued to Greenwich because the council had acted unilaterally and without consultation with the government.
Council acted ‘unilaterally’
“What we had in the situation with Greenwich is there was no conversation, there was no discussion that Greenwich had flagged up an issue beforehand.
“We found out by a clear announcement that this was the approach that Greenwich was taking when they had a case rate load of 250 per 100,000, which wasn’t that different from the all-London case rate and it certainly wasn’t one of the areas that had been flagged up to us by Public Health England or anyone else.”
Williamson claimed his department was “also in a position where the knowledge of the new variant was certainly not something that we had any understand or knowledge of”.
“At that stage, none of us were 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.”
When asked whether the DfE was aware of the health secretary’s statement before the direction was issued to Greenwich, Acland-Hood said: “No I don’t think we were. I think that was the following day.”
But she was corrected by committee chair Robert Halfon, who pointed out that the statement was made the same day
“I’m very happy to check the record again,” replied Acland-Hood.
“When we looked at the timeline in advance I had thought that the SoS for health’s announcement in Parliament was the following day. But no, we weren’t aware of the announcement on the new variant at the point the direction was issued.”
Acland-Hood would not say whether the DfE would still have issued the direction had it known about the health secretary’s statement, insisting it was a decision for Williamson, not her.
However, she said the reasons given by Williamson for the direction – that Greenwich were “acting unilaterally without discussion”, that the area was not among those with the highest infection rates in the country and that there was no public health advice calling for school closures – still stood.
In a statement published after the hearing, Greenwich council leader Dan Thorpe said Williamson’s claims were “simply not true”.
“There remain huge questions and serious concerns about how the government has been making decisions on school safety and arrangements, especially given their knowledge of the new variant, and we are continuing to push for answers,” he added, “Our schools, parents and teachers deserve to know that those making decisions about them have done so with their best interests at heart.”