COVID-19: Greenwich council backs down in fight with government over closing schools due to rising coronavirus rates

The leader of a London borough has said he has “no choice” but to tell schools to stay open following threats of legal action from the government.

Greenwich council’s Danny Thorpe insisted it was not the “correct choice” but that he could not “justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts”.

It follows an order yesterday by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that schools must stay open.

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Several schools in the capital, which tomorrow is going into Tier 3 – the highest band of coronavirus restrictions – have said they want to move to online learning for the rest of the term due to rising COVID-19 rates.

Infections are said to be increasing quickest among those aged 10-19, with the government promising to roll out mass testing to schools in some boroughs to counter the spread in the run up to Christmas.

But that is taking time and there are fears children could pass on the virus to vulnerable family members during the five day rule relaxation where people from three households can socialise at home together from 23-27 December.

Three London councils – Greenwich in the south, Islington in the north and Waltham Forest in the east – had urged schools to shut early to help curb a resurgence of cases.

And mayor Said Khan said Prime Minister Boris Johnson should consider letting all secondary schools and colleges in the city close early and allow them to re-open later in January.

But the government has resisted those calls, with Mr Williamson saying yesterday: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors.”

Now Mr Thorpe has said schools in Greenwich should stay open – despite COVID-19 cases “rising rapidly” locally.

“The action we took on Sunday was based solely on doing the right thing for our borough, not a protracted legal argument with the Government, which absolutely nobody needs at the end of an extremely difficult term,” he explained.

Geoff Barton, leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the government had won a “hollow victory”, resulting in an “unseemly end to a gruelling and exhausting term when schools at the very least deserved some flexibility over their end-of-term arrangements”.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said it was “right” for schools to stay open.

“Arranging child care at short notice – we could be taking doctors, nurses off shift, out of vaccination clinics, inadvertently shooting ourselves in the foot,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It’s a difficult balance to get right. We need clarity and consistency, not last-minute decisions.”

The latest figures show 80% of secondary school pupils were in school last week – meaning one in five were not, with 0.8% of schools closed altogether.

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