Gavin Williamson has defended the Department for Education's decision to use legal action against Greenwich Council to keep schools open before Christmas by claiming they had no knowledge of the new variant.

This is despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock telling the House of Commons about the existence of the Covid-19 variant over an hour before the legal order to the south east London council.

Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has already fired back at Williamson, claiming this is "simply not true," and said "there remained huge questions and serious concerns about how the Government has been making decisions on school safety and arrangements."

This all follows Cllr Thorpe's actions on December 13, when he advised all schools in Greenwich not to reopen for the final week of term and instead switch to remote learning in order to combat rising infection rates locally.

The move proved controversial, receiving backing from other London councils and criticism from Government and some parents.

But classrooms stayed open however after Gavin Williamson issued a temporary continuity direction to the London borough as well as demanding that it withdraw letters to head teachers and parents which advised the closures.

Now, during a hearing of the Parliamentary education committee this morning, the Education Secretary claimed they did not know about the Government's concerns around the new strain coronavirus at that point.

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Williamson said “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 shut, he added, saying “that was not that different from the all-London case rate at the time."

Williamson also criticised Greenwich Council for failing to notify or discuss plans with the the government as others had done when tackling very high levels of infections across the north and Midlands.

“What we had in the situation with Greenwich is, there was no conversation, there was no discussion that Greenwich had flagged up an issue beforehand," he said.

“We found out by a clear announcement that this was the direction Greenwich was taking when they had a case rate of 250 per 100,000 which wasn’t that different from the all-London case rate, it certainly wasn’t an area that had been flagged up to use by Public Health England or anyone else.”

Williamson claimed his department was “also in a position where the knowledge of the new variant was certainly not something that we had any understand or knowledge of”.

Day later, Boris Johnson said the variant was to blame for the U-turn on the lifting of restrictions over Christmas and later the full national lockdown.

However, Parliamentary records show that Matt Hancock had actually warned of the dangers of the new variant in the House of Commons at 3:38pm on December 14.

The direction was issued to the local authority at 4:54pm, over an hour later, before being published at 7:48pm.



Sarah Acland-Hood, also of the DfE, maintained that the department did not know of the variant when they issued the order, despite correction from the committee chair.

Responding in a statement today (January 13), Cllr Danny Thorpe said they had taken the difficult decision to request that schools move to remote education due to a sharp increase in cases across the borough.

He said Williamson's claims were "simply not true" as Hancock had made the announcement earler in the day, and yet the council were still forced to ask local schools to remain open, "potentially putting many people at risk."

He said: "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."

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Despite Mr Williamson telling Greenwich Council to keep schools open to all pupils or face the threat of legal action on December 14, and the council's subsequent withdrawal of its statement, new stats show that in Greenwich, only 44% of secondary school pupils and 50% of primary pupils went to class on December 16.

Nationally, the number of students in state schools in England plummeted in the week before Christmas, new Government data has aslo shown.

Less than three quarters of pupils (72%) were in secondary school classes on December 16, down from 80% the week before, according to the Department for Education.

Attendance in primary schools dropped from 89% to 86% over the same end of term period.

Approximately between 9% and 11% of pupils - up to 872,000 children - did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons on Wednesday December 16.

The lowest attendances were recorded in London, where the number of children in state school settings across the year groups dropped to 67%, down from 80% on December 10.

The south-west had the most children in school, with 87% in total, but that had fallen from 89% a week previously.

Figures show that in Thurrock, Essex, secondary school attendance was just 14% on December 16, while in the London borough of Redbridge it was 17%.

Meanwhile in Kent, just over a third (34%) of secondary school pupils attended class.

The declining numbers occurred in the same week as the disputes between central Government over keeping schools open amid rising coronavirus cases.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: "At the end of last term we warned that attendance was likely to drop off a cliff as a result of the Government's confused approach, and so it has proved.

"In the absence of a distinct message from the Government, as expected, families clearly took their own decisions on what was safe, and they should not be blamed for that.

"Despite repeated claims that children and young people are a national priority, the Government has routinely failed to take the right steps to preserve the quality of their education."

A Department for Education spokesman said of the attendance figures: "Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country worked extremely hard to remain open throughout the autumn term, implementing safety measures and providing remote education where children were self-isolating.

"We are now keeping schools and colleges open to critical worker and vulnerable children and those protective measures remain in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community."