Government accused of 'dithering' over school closures by councils

3 January 2021, 10:58 | Updated: 3 January 2021, 13:45

By Joe Cook

The leader of Birmingham City Council has accused the government of "dithering" over school closures, as he told LBC primary schools should stay shut if the city is to avoid the pressures London's hospitals are facing.

Birmingham council leader Ian Ward told LBC he believes the government is “dithering over the decision on primary and special schools” and should trust headteachers to make their own decision on the safety of opening schools.

The comments come after Brighton and Hove City Council, on Saturday evening, advised primary schools to remain closed.

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Councillor Hannah Clare, chair of Brighton’s Children, Young People & Skills Committee, also told LBC's Swarbrick on Sunday that their "director of public health advised that we are in a position very similar to areas" where schools are closed.

“We feel like for a short period of time they should close, to protect them from a longer closure."

Boris Johnson "has to look at the numbers and see that the right thing to do across England is to just have this short period of time where we delay school opening," Ms Clare told Tom Swarbrick.

Meanwhile, Birmingham council say they will leave the decision to individual headteachers, telling LBC: “What we are now saying is rather than open tomorrow, primary schools in Birmingham should carry out a risk assessment.

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“If headteachers conclude, following that risk assessment, that it is not safe to open that school then they should not do so. The city council stands behind them in that decision.”

However, Mr Ward warned that the case numbers amongst children have grown significantly in Birmingham, with case numbers amongst the five to nine age group almost doubling “in the first three weeks of December”.

“We are seeing an increase in case numbers, particularly in that 5-14 age group that we have not seen before,” he added. “We believe that indicates the new variant is now present.

“We see from London that once the new variant is in schools it will spread and children will not be getting an education if they’re going down with Covid in increasing numbers across the city.”

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The Birmingham city council leader added: “The NHS hospitals in Birmingham are under continued pressure and that is increasing as we have seen case rates go up.”

“We are not far off where you are down in London... and the way to avoid that is to close down more sectors, including schools from next week.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed on Friday that all London primary schools will remain shut to most pupils next week - rather than just those in certain boroughs as set out earlier in the week.

As pressure grows on the government to close more schools, Ms Truss said she supports the education secretary in doing "all he can to keep schools as open as he can".

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She said "closing schools is an absolute last resort" and that "schools are safe".

However, she refused to "speculate on what further decisions might have to be made", conceding the new strain has put the government in "a very, very difficult situation".

She added that "schools have had to be closed as part of an effort to contain the spread of that virus" in London, "because we have this new variant of the virus, which is very infectious".

The school row comes after figures showed a record-high 57,725 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Saturday, with another 445 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

However, the National Education Union has advised primary school staff it is unsafe to return to classrooms on Monday.

National Association of Head Teachers general secretary Paul Whiteman said the union had also started preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education, asking it to share its scientific data about safety and transmission rates.

However, the minister told LBC she could "absolutely" guarantee that exams will happen at the end of the year, after last year's U-turn.

“It is vitally important that exams go ahead, we know the difficulties that we had last summer," Ms Truss told LBC.

"I think it is right that students have a fair chance to show what they have achieved and we know exams are the right way of doing that.”

Manchester City Council said they would work with schools to make individual decisions while keeping a close eye on virus rates.

Councillor Garry Bridges, executive member for children and schools, said: "Our starting point is that the best place for children is to be in school.

"Schools are one of the most effective track-and-trace organisations in the country and our public health teams have indicated that they are not seeing evidence of transmission within schools, but largely in the community.

"There are also risks to children through not being in school.

"The Government have handled this situation appallingly with confusing and contradictory advice followed by repeated last-minute U-turns and it is no surprise that the Secretary of State has lost the confidence of schools.

"Manchester's infection rates were much higher throughout the autumn term than they are currently, and our schools battled incredibly hard to stay open safely throughout that period, often with little support and confusing guidance.

"It does seem that the conversation is now being set by a London-centred focus. In conversation with Public Health we are not giving blanket advice to schools to remain closed currently but will work with individual schools to make the right decision for their circumstances and support them in any way we can."