Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson was threatened with legal action on New Year’s Eve (image: UK Parliament via Creative Commons)

Greenwich Council is calling for the education secretary Gavin Williamson to come clean on why he ordered the borough’s primary schools to open as normal for this term in spite of soaring coronavirus cases across south-east London.

The town hall says that the Department for Education has refused to answer a freedom of information request asking for the criteria used at the end of December to order the schools in Greenwich and nine other London boroughs, including neighbouring Lewisham, to reopen for the spring term – even though its infection rate was higher than boroughs where schools had been told to close.

According to the council, the department has said that the public interest in non-disclosure “outweighs the public interest in disclosure in this case” – a response public bodies, including Greenwich Council itself, often use to fend off information requests. Premature disclosure would be likely to “disrupt the future working relationships, necessary consultation and flow of ministerial advice”, the department said.

It is not clear who has sent the request in this instance. A similar request from 853 sent five weeks ago has not yet led to any sort of response. Freedom of information laws call for a response within four weeks.

Williamson backed down after Greenwich and most of the other boroughs, as well as the City of London, threatened the Department for Education with legal action in a letter sent on New Year’s Eve. A third national lockdown followed soon after.

Greenwich was threatened with legal action itself two weeks previously when it asked schools to close in light of rising cases before Christmas. 42 hours of disruption ended with schools being asked to reopen for the final days of the autumn term. The department’s top civil servant has admitted that it knew about the new fast-spreading variant of coronavirus that was coming in from Kent while ordering Greenwich to reverse its decision.

Council leader Danny Thorpe said: “It was astounding that at a time when our rates were rocketing, we were told that our children should not stay at home. Clearly, that decision was wrong and we were delighted when, having only made the decision 48-hours before, the government changed their mind.

“It is astounding now that we are still being kept in the dark as to why that decision was made in the first place, and their refusal will further erode trust in the department’s response. It is simply not acceptable to behave in this way and will only add to the suspicion that this bizarre decision was not based on the data.

“We all want a clear plan for how and when schools will reopen, and the first step towards that is for the education secretary to explain exactly what data they were using to justify themselves when they threatened to take us to court.”


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