Gavin Williamson was threatened with legal action by eight boroughs and the City (image: UK Parliament via Creative Commons)

Primary schools in Greenwich and Lewisham are to remain closed until at least 18 January after councils across London threatened to take the education secretary Gavin Williamson to court.

On Wednesday, Williamson announced that schools in 23 boroughs would remain closed after the Christmas holiday because of soaring coronavirus case rates in the capital. While Bexley and Bromley schools were to close, Greenwich and Lewisham were left off the list, despite their figures being worse than some areas that had been told to close schools.

Eight of the nine remaining boroughs, plus the City of London, threatened legal action against the Conservative minister in a letter sent late on New Year’s Eve, with Greenwich leader Danny Thorpe and Lewisham elected mayor Damien Egan among the signatories.

Williamson changed his mind on New Year’s Day, announcing that schools across London would remain closed next week. Primary schools will be required to provide remote learning to all children, although vulnerable children and those of critical workers will still be able to attend.

The department said the decision was made “in light of Covid case rates rising rapidly across the capital and ongoing engagement with London leaders”.

Secondary schools across England will have a staggered opening, with pupils taking exams returning on 11 January and others going back the following week. In Greenwich, pupils taking exams have been invited to take fast lateral flow tests at The Valley in Charlton this weekend in an attempt to find young people who do not know they have the virus.

The latest shambles surrounding primary schools followed a row last month when Greenwich tried to close schools early for Christmas, only to back down when the government threatened legal action.

This time it worked with Lewisham, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Harrow, Lambeth and the City of London to get the decision overturned, with only Liberal Democrat Kingston staying out of the fight, although it said it was “baffled” by Williamson’s decision. The involvement of the City Corporation alongside the eight Labour councils was an unusual step – the local authority for the Square Mile, which has just one state school, usually keeps out of party politics.

The campaign was also supported by Greenwich’s opposition Conservative councillors, as well as London Councils, which represents all boroughs, and the mayor, Sadiq Khan. All three of the borough’s MPs also wrote to Williamson demanding a change of heart.

“It will be huge relief tonight to parents and families across the borough that the government has finally recognised what myself and all at the Council have been saying for weeks,” Thorpe said.

“On a local level, this is a decision that vindicates the safety first approach we took at the end of the last term. Faced with an exponential growth in Covid cases, we were clear immediate action was required.

“There remain huge questions to answer about how the government ever came to this decision in the first place and we will continue to push for those answers. Our schools, parents and teachers deserve to know that those making decisions about them have done so with their best interests at heart.”

According to the latest Public Health England figures, 818 people tested positive for coronavirus per 100,000 people in Greenwich in the seven days to 27 December. In Lewisham, the figure is 802; in Bexley, the rate is 1,120.

Hospitals are under mounting pressure: figures obtained by The Independent‘s health correspondent Shaun Lintern state that more than one in three beds in the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust – which covers Queen Elizabeth and Lewisham hospitals – are occupied by coronavirus patients, up from one in 12 four weeks ago.

In the neighbouring Dartford and Gravesham trust, half of all beds are taken by patients with coronavirus.


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