The Government has ordered Greenwich Council to keep schools open, with legal action a "last resort."

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has issued a 'temporary continuity direction' under the emergency Coronavirus Act 2020, ordering the London borough to rescind its request for all schools to close.

This comes after council leader Danny Thorpe announced on Sunday evening that it was asking all 133 of Greenwich's schools to close from Monday evening after an "exponential growth" in Covid-19 cases.

The move has caused debate and division nationally, and other London boroughs including Islington and Waltham Forest have since followed suit.

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The legal direction has been issued to the council itself, ordering it to withdraw letters to sent to headteachers on Sunday by 10am on Tuesday (December 15) at the latest.

Williamson said: "Using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority."

He added: "It is simply not in children's best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors.

"That's why I won't hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich Council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to head teachers on Sunday."

READ MORE: The stats behind SE London's 'catastrophic' rise in Covid-19 cases

The council has also been ordered to issue a ‘Schools Opening Requirement’ letter provided by Williamson to all headteachers in the borough.

Responding to the news, Cllr Thorpe said the local authority was in the process of “seeking legal advice”, and would respond to the government in the morning.

He added schools across the borough “have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils”.

“We have alerted schools, and will speak to them tomorrow. But given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.”

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Headteachers’ unions have reacted with anger to the news.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said the government “appears to see this situation as a battle to be won rather than a solution to be found through reasoned discussion."

“Our sympathies are with schools, parents and pupils in Greenwich who are caught up in the government’s increasingly desperate attempts to impose its will."

Paul Whiteman, leader of the NAHT, said the government’s decision was “a disgrace”.

“The government has failed to help schools maintain the quality and continuity of education. In the absence of support LAs are bound to try and help. Judgment is needed not power preening. The misuse of crisis powers will live long in the memory.”

Schools in Basildon were allowed to close early last week after it recorded England's third-highest Covid rate and London's mayor Sadiq Khan has called on secondary schools and colleges in the capital to follow suit.

Greenwich Council have stressed that Covid-19 cases are currently at their highest rate in the borough since March, with numbers currently doubling every four days.

The seven-day infection rate is currently 59% higher than at the same point last week, and a massive 4,262 children and 362 staff are currently self-isolating.