School sign
Williamson’s letter piled on the uncertainty for Greenwich parents

Tens of thousands of schoolchildren and their families are caught in the middle of a row between Greenwich Council and the government this morning after education secretary Gavin Williamson tried to overturn leader Danny Thorpe’s attempt to close the borough’s schools to stop an alarming rise in coronavirus cases.

Williamson sent a legal threat to the town hall late on Monday afternoon – after schools had already been closed for the day, or in many cases, the end of term, compounding confusion caused by Thorpe’s initial call for schools to close.

The previous day the council leader had used his personal Twitter account to announce that he had asked all the borough’s schools to switch to online learning from today, becoming the first borough in London to make such a move. It followed a lengthy briefing by Kevin Fenton, the regional director of Public Health England, given to all London borough leaders on Sunday morning. A formal statement from the council followed an hour later, but heads complained they had been caught on the hop and that they had heard the news first via social media. Some academy schools simply ignored the request and told parents to send their children in as normal.

A turbulent Monday, which saw the capital placed in Tier 3 – the highest level of coronavirus restrictions – saw London mayor Sadiq Khan call for all secondary schools across the 32 boroughs to be closed. But Thorpe’s own party leader did not back him, with Sir Keir Starmer telling LBC radio that he would advise “[talking] to the health secretary about what we can do to keep schools open this week. Try to keep them open this week.”

At lunchtime Islington Council became the second council to ask schools to close, followed by Waltham Forest. But so far only Greenwich has been singled out for legal action by Williamson, who has demanded that Greenwich withdraws letters sent to both parents and headteachers by 10am this morning, and replace them with a letter from him ordering them to reopen.

‘Caught in political crossfire’

Thorpe said the council is seeking legal advice and will respond to the government in the morning. “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,” he said.

Among the borough’s academies, John Roan and Stationers’ Crown Woods joined Ark Greenwich Free School and Harris Academy in Eltham in refusing to close their doors. Thomas Tallis, Thorpe’s old school, which is overseen by the council, sent a letter to parents saying it was “regrettable that the school is caught in this political crossfire”, explaining that it would be open following the government’s warning – a phrase also used by St Ursula’s convent.

Thorpe was also criticised by Nigel Fletcher, the leader of the borough’s Conservative opposition, who said he had also only found out via Twitter and said he understood that the “decision was made without the prior recommendation of Greenwich’s director of public health, the officer with legal responsibility for advising on these matters”.

“I have spoken to the schools minister, who stressed to me that this move by the council is not supported by the regional director of Public Health England or the deputy chief medical officer,” he added. “Issuing unilateral advice contrary to that given by the appropriate experts is a recipe for needless conflict and confusion.”

Thorpe insisted he had the backing of Greenwich’s public health team, which is led by Steve Whiteman, the director of public health.

“Our request was based on information from Public Health England and supported by the council’s Public Health team,” he said last night. “In the Royal Borough of Greenwich, we currently have the highest rates of Covid-19 since March, with numbers doubling every four days. Our seven-day infection rate for the borough is now 59% higher than at the same point last week.”

Allies of Thorpe say the closure announcement was made on his Twitter account to get the message out as soon as possible, given the urgency of the situation.

Current case rates

According to figures released yesterday, the case rate for Greenwich was 250 residents per 100,000 as of 9 December, compared with 311 in Bexley and 184 in Lewisham. The worst-hit borough in London is Havering, with 509 cases per 100,000 residents, while Westminster recorded 119.

A new tool on Public Health England’s coronavirus dashboard gives an insight into the decision-making, demonstrating cases per age group. In Greenwich’s case, it demonstrates a steady build-up of cases in teenagers since schools reopened in September.

Coronavirus cases in Greenwich since the start of the pandemic – older age ranges at the top, darker colours indicate greater case numbers (click to expand or explore for yourself)
Greenwich coronavirus cases by age
The data for Greenwich clearly shows a growth in cases among teenagers (click to expand or explore for yourself)

Yesterday, the case rate among 10-14 year-olds in Greenwich was 325 per 100,000 as of 9 December; 408 for 15-19 year-olds. Equivalent figures for another Labour council, Redbridge – which is not attempting to close schools, despite being one of the worst-hit boroughs – are 609 per 100,000 for 10-14 year-olds and 571 for 15-19 year-olds.

Tier 3 restrictions coming from Wednesday

The row over school closures in Greenwich drowned out news of the introduction of Tier 3 restrictions in London from Wednesday. Pubs and restaurants must close except for takeaway and delivery, sports fans cannot attend events in stadiums, while indoor entertainment venues must remain close.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, called for “the brilliant local media” to echo public health messages to ensure Tier 3 restrictions work in the capital.

However, his government has refused to place public health advertisements with independent local media outlets like 853, The Charlton Champion, London SE1, The Lewisham Ledger and Waltham Forest Echo despite constant requests from the sector’s trade body, the Independent Community News Network.

Instead, it has channelled funding towards media giants who have cut back their coverage in south-east London, meaning its messages are unlikely to be seen: the Sutton-based News Shopper, owned by US media giant Gannett, has stopped publishing its print editions in Greenwich and Lewisham since the pandemic began. In Bexley, publication of the Bexley Times has been suspended by its owner, Archant, and its website – which still contains an appeal for cash to fund “campaigning journalism” – is no longer updated.

BBC London report above is used by arrangement with BBC Local News Partnerships

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