Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s claim that “none of us knew” about the new variant of Covid-19 when he issued a legal direction to a council to keep schools open is “simply not true”, a council leader said today.
Danny Thorpe, the leader of the London borough that was at the heart of the legal row before Christmas, has rejected claims made by the education secretary to the Commons Education Select Committee this morning.
Mr Williamson told MPs that “the new variant was not something that we had any understanding or knowledge of" when his department issued a legal direction to the Royal Borough of Greenwich ordering it to withdraw plans to move schools online in the final week of term over Covid concerns.
However, the authority's leader, Mr Thorpe, said that, in fact, health secretary Matt Hancock had already made a parliamentary statement earlier the same day, warning about the new variant before the legal direction was imposed on the council.
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Mr Thorpe said: “On 13 December we took the difficult decision to request that the majority of pupils, apart from vulnerable children and children of key workers, at schools in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, move to remote education, due to the sharp increase in cases of Covid-19 across the borough.
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"Following a legal directive from the government at 5pm on 14 December, 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 for the wider school population, potentially putting many people at risk of catching Covid-19.”
Mr Williamson was asked about the decision to issue a legal direction to the Royal Borough of Greenwich when he appeared before MPs this morning.
He said: “What we had in the situation with Greenwich was that there was no conversation, no discussion in which Greenwich had flagged up an issue beforehand.
“Usually these were being flagged up by the directors of children's services, directors of public health. This hadn’t been the situation in Greenwich.
"We found out through the clear announcement that this was the approach 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 certainly wasn’t one of the areas that had been flagged up to us by Public Health England or anyone else.
"We were also in a position where the knowledge of the new variant was certainly not something that we had any understanding and knowledge of.”
He added: “At that stage none of us were aware of the new variant and not aware of the impact that would ultimately have in terms of case rates and the impact more widely right across the country and including in London.”
The council had asked schools to move online after the first Monday of the final week of term but was forced to withdraw this after it received a legal direction from the DfE using emergency powers under the Coronavirus Act.
Ministerial letters raising the prospect of legal action were also sent to schools in two other London boroughs where councils had asked schools to move online.
Mr Thorpe added: “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."
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.