School closure chaos: What DfE knew about Covid variant

More emerged today about the timing of DfE legal order to keep schools open last term amid the rise of new Covid variant

John Roberts

School closure chaos: More information emerged today about what the DfE knew about the new coronavirus variant when it issued its legal order to keep schools open last term

The government has faced more scrutiny today over why it took legal action to force some schools to stay open last term when a more transmissive variant of Covid-19 was at large.

Scientific advisers were asked by the Commons Education Select Committee exactly when they knew about the new variant of Covid-19 and the risks it posed towards the end of last term as the government battled to keep schools open despite the virus spreading.

The questions were raised after education secretary Gavin Williamson last week told the committee that "none of us knew" about the new variant when he directed Greenwich council to reverse plans to move schools online over Covid concerns.

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MPs were told today that the government only knew for certain that the new variant was more transmissive after the end of the term.

Here is a timeline of what we know so far after today's hearing about the government's handling of the Covid crisis in schools during the chaotic run-up to the end of last term.

10 December, 2020 

Government orders mass coronavirus testing in schools amid rising Covid rates in the South

The first sign of major problems came days before the last week of term. On Thursday 10 December, the government said it was taking urgent action to test secondary school students and staff in Covid hotspots in London, Essex and Kent, with teachers being urged to get tested that weekend.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said this was because of concerns about Covid rates among young people in these areas. This was four days before the government took legal action to keep schools open.

13 December

A London council asks schools to move online amid Covid fears

On the Sunday before the last week of term, the stakes were raised as Greenwich council asked all of its schools to move to online learning from the end of Monday for everyone except vulnerable children and those of key workers after a surge in Covid cases in the area.

Council leader Dan Thorpe said on that Sunday evening that the authority had no choice after seeing "exponential growth" in cases. It was a controversial move as the Department for Education had already made it clear that keeping schools fully open was a national priority.

14 December, 3.38pm

Health secretary tells MPs about the new variant

Matt Hancock told MPs in a statement in the House of Commons that a new variant of the coronavirus had been identified that may be linked to a faster spread of the virus in the South East of England.

He said initial analysis suggested that this variant was growing faster than the existing variants.

14 December, 5pm

DfE issues legal direction ordering Greenwich council to back down

Later that same day education secretary Gavin Williamson issued a legal order forcing Greenwich council to back down over plans for all schools to switch to online learning over Covid concerns from 14 December. The plan would have resulted in most pupils not returning to school until the start of the new term.

The education secretary's direction came after Mr Hancock had given his statement. Greenwich council said in a statement that the direction was made at 5pm.  

Mr Williamson faced criticism last week for suggesting that "none of us knew" about the new variant when his department issued the legal direction, because it came after Mr Hancock's statement.

However, Osama Rahman, the Department for Education's chief scientific adviser, told the Commons Education Select Committee today that the letter to Greenwich council was actually written at around 1.50pm – before Mr Hancock had made his statement. 

15 December

It emerged that the Department for Education had also threatened legal action in letters to schools in other areas of London where councils had called for learning to move online because of the rising number of Covid cases.

Tes revealed that schools in both Islington and Waltham Forest had received a letter from schools standard minister Nick Gibb in which he said the government would consider using emergency powers to order schools to remain open. 

17 December

MPs were told today that a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies discussed the new variant on Thursday 17 December.

Mr Rahman said at the time that the meeting heard that the new variant "may" be more transmissive.

This was also the final day of in-person teaching for many schools as the government had invited schools to use the final Friday of term as an Inset day.

This was part of a plan to ensure that teachers would not have to be on call beyond 23 December to help track and trace any Covid contacts.

21 December

Mr Rahman told the Commons Education Committee today that it was confirmed that the new variant was more transmissive on Monday 21 December.

He said government scientific and medical advisers were called to a meeting "quite quickly" that afternoon by the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and were sent a technical report from Public Health England later in the day which confirmed the new variant was "about 50 per cent more transmissive across all age groups."


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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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