Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he did not know about the new ultra-infectious Covid-19 strain before he decided to legally force Greenwich council to send pupils back to school last month.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock had revealed details of the dangerous variant that morning in the House of Commons, Greenwich leaders have pointed out.
Greenwich announced plans to close its schools on December 14 – four days before the end of term.
But the Department for Education quickly issued a notice demanding town hall leaders retract the guidance to close schools.
Mr Williamson threatened to apply for a court injunction against the council under the Coronavirus Act 2020.
Speaking to the Education Select Committee yesterday, Mr Williamson was asked about the controversial move made just days before the government moved London into a Tier 4 lockdown.
Two weeks later, the Prime Minister announced a third national lockdown, which includes school closures.
Mr Williamson said yesterday that “It would have been wrong of us not to take action” against the council when at the time cases in Greenwich stood at “much lower than in the north and across the Midlands”.
Cases in Greenwich were around 250 per 100,000 when the council called on schools to close, he added. “That was not that different from the all-London case rate at the time,” he said.
Mr Williamson criticised Greenwich over claims it failed to notify the government over plans to close schools.
Mr Williamson said: “Right across the north of England, right across the Midlands, we’ve seen many local authorities and many schools tackling very high levels of Covid infections. On every one of those occasions we have worked very closely with every one of those authorities where they’ve had particular concerns.
“Sometimes, that’s meant schools closing where there have been particular challenges, but we’ve really taken the approach of partnership working.
“With Greenwich, there was no conversation.
“It certainly wasn’t an area that had been flagged up by Public Health England or anyone else.”
Mr Williamson insisted the DfE had “no knowledge” of the new variant of Covid-19 which Boris Johnson said days later was to blame for the U-turn on the lifting of restrictions over Christmas and later the full national lockdown.
“It would have been remiss of us, it would have been wrong of us not to take action,” Mr Williamson added.
The Education Secretary also told the committee that he was “pushing as hard as possible” for schools to reopen immediately after the February half-term.
But Greenwich council leader Cllr Danny Thorpe and cabinet lead for children and young people’s services, Councillor Matthew Morrow, have pointed out that Mr Hancock issued a statement on the new variant to parliament hours before the direction was published.
They said: “On December 13 we took the difficult decision to request that schools in the Royal Borough of Greenwich move to remote education for the majority of pupils, with the exception of vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers, due to the sharp increase in cases of Covid-19 across the borough. Following a legal directive from the Government at 5pm on December 14, we were forced to reverse the decision.
“This morning, in an interview with the Select Committee, the Secretary for Education Gavin Williamson claimed the government was unaware of the new variant emerging in South-east England before legal action was launched against the Royal Borough of Greenwich.
“This is simply not true: Matt Hancock made the announcement of the new variant to Parliament earlier that same day. Despite this, we had no choice but to ask local schools to remain open, potentially putting many people at risk of catching Covid-19.
“Our top priority during the pandemic has always been to keep our communities safe, and that includes protecting the children, teachers and schools in our borough.
“Faced with an exponential growth in people suffering from Covid-19 in December, we were clear immediate action was required. The request to schools to move to remote education was never an easy decision or one which we took lightly. But we now know this was the right course of action.
“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.
“Our schools, parents and teachers deserve to know that those making decisions about them have done so with their best interests at heart.”
Pictured top: Gavin Williamson at the Education Select Committee yesterday
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