Behind the scenes

Coronavirus: a timeline of the U-turn on school closures

Boris Johnson rules out return to classrooms just 24 hours after insisting reopening was safe

Boris Johnson yesterday described schools as “vectors of transmission” and ordered pupils to stay at home until mid-February - a day after insisting that there is “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe”.

The prime minister announced the closures - part of the third national lockdown in England - following repeated warnings from health experts that keeping pupils at home was key to stopping the spread of the new strain of Covid-19. 

Despite that prediction, the issue has caused a rift in Johnson’s cabinet. Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock argued that schools should be closed, while Education Secretary Gavin Williamson called for a staggered return for pupils, the Financial Times reports.

Indeed, the newly announced U-turn is the latest in a long-running saga that has seen schools become a front line in the pandemic response.

14 December 

Amid rising Covid cases in London, Williamson threatens councils in Greenwich and Islington with legal action if they close their doors, saying: “Using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.” 

School leaders and teaching unions tell The Guardian that the government’s approach is “appalling”, “shameful” and “a step too far”, amid fears over teacher safety.

21 December 

Williamson says that mass testing means schools can safely reopen in the new year. There is a “broad consensus from those working in education and with young people that we must keep schools open”, he adds.

28 December

Politico reports that at a meeting with ministers days earlier, members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had warned that secondary schools needed to remain closed in January to prevent Covid infections from spiralling out of control.

30 December

Williamson tells the House of Commons that due to the “rapidly changing situation”, secondary schools across most of England would remain closed for an extra two weeks for most pupils. But the education secretary also says primary schools in much of London must reopen as usual.

1 January

Williamson announces that London primary schools will also remain closed.

4 January

Civil servants at the Department for Education are told there are no plans to close schools or cancel exams, according to PoliticsHome reporter John Johnston. Hours later, Johnson announces that he is shutting all schools for seven weeks and cancelling exams this summer as part of the latest national lockdown.

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