The Government has warned that legal action could be taken to require schools to stay open after Greenwich Council last night became the first authority in the country to order all of its schools to close early.

The Department of Education has said it remains a national priority to keep schools open full time, but the council have said they “cannot in all good conscience stand by whilst the numbers are doubling so quickly.”

The National Education Union has backed the decision, calling it "very sensible".

Cllr Nigel Fletcher, leader of the council's opposition, said he was "sure the decision wouldn't have been made without serious consideration of the consequences."

But the Conservative councillor said it was "far from ideal to hear about it on Twitter on a Sunday night," leaving parents and schools understandably very concerned.

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Announced late on Sunday night (December 13), Greenwich COuncil has ordered all 133 of its schools to close for Christmas on Monday evening, three days early.

The schools will close for everyone except the children of key workers and vulnerable students, as in the first lockdown, and teaching will move online.

Council leader Danny Thorpe wrote to parents that he was "extremely sorry" for the disruption this was likely to cause.

"I wouldn't be asking for this unless the risk was extreme, but with numbers rising so rapidly it is clear action is needed."

Parents and residents have had a mixed reaction so far, with some supporting the move to prioritise safety, but others understandably upset.

One Tweeter said the decision should not have been announced on Sunday night as "has created a huge amount of confusion for parents", and a parent added that their "daughter is in tears" after the abrupt news.

And another local fumed: "Ridiculous decision, parents cannot just decide they are not going to work with that notice!"

Sadiq Khan has backed the move, and has even called for all schools in London to close for Christmas early amid rising cases.

The Regional Schools Commissioner for the South East of England and South London would be continuing discussions with Greenwich, he added.

The move from the Labour council will put schools in a difficult position as it goes against Government advice to keep education open.

The Department for Education have threatened to use legal action under the Coronavirus Act against headteachers in England who want to allow their pupils to learn remotely in the run-up to Christmas.

Schools nationally that were planning to move to remote teaching during the last week of term, to ensure their pupils would not have to self-isolate on Christmas Day, are being ordered to remain open until Friday.

Thorpe referred to the government’s threat of legal action, saying that while “the DFE [Department for Education] are clear this isn’t their position and indeed have issued directives to some schools,” he “cannot in all good conscience stand by whilst the numbers are doubling so quickly”.

Covid-19 cases in Greenwich have seen an exponential growth in just the last couple of days, and with rates rising across the capital, London could be set for Tier 3 restrictions.

Mr Thorpe said: "I have today been briefed by colleagues from Public Health England that the pandemic in Greenwich is now showing signs that we are in a period of exponential growth that demands immediate action.”

Writing to headteachers, Thorpe described the issue as “honestly one of the most difficult questions I have wrestled with during all my time as leader”.

He underlined that Greenwich now had the highest rate of infection at any time since March.

Schools have been told to move to online learning for the rest of the term from Monday evening, with the exception of key worker children and those with specific needs.