Labour: Gavin Williamson must 'end Invisible Man act' over university Covid issues

28 September 2020, 23:53

Labour has urged Gavin Williamson to end his "Invisible Man act" over Covid issues at universities
Labour has urged Gavin Williamson to end his "Invisible Man act" over Covid issues at universities. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Labour has told Gavin Williamson to end his "Invisible Man act" over the issues facing students following a spike in coronavirus cases at universities.

The opposition party's demand comes as the education secretary prepares to face MPs on Tuesday regarding the uptick in Covid-19 cases on UK campuses.

Mr Williamson is due to answer an urgent question in the Commons after thousands of students were forced to self-isolate at universities including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "After days of silence, this statement is a chance for the education secretary to end his Invisible Man act and begin to get to grips with the situation.

"None of this was unforeseeable. Labour and others have warned that campuses would need access to testing.

"But - just as with the exams fiasco over the summer - the education secretary has created chaos through his incompetence and failure to act.

"Gavin Williamson must set out what he is doing to resolve these problems and put young people and parents' minds at rest."

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According to university statements and local reports this month, roughly 30 UK institutions have seen confirmed Covid-19 cases. While on Monday, the University of Exeter asked students not to meet indoors with anyone who is not part of their household for the next 14 days.

The Labour Party accused Mr Williamson of not making any public appearances throughout the higher education saga and highlighted how he had not tweeted since 10 September - more than two weeks ago.

On Monday, the South Staffordshire MP took to Instagram to post about a litter pick in his constituency that he had taken part in, rather than the situation at the UK's universities.

The statement from Ms Green and the mounting issues in higher education come just weeks after the education secretary was urged to resign over his handling of the A-Level exam results fiasco.

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Labour is also demanding that the former chief whip sets out what steps he took over the summer to ensure that students would be able to return to university safely.

The opposition party also wants clarity that "every student will be able to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas after access to testing" as ministers put out mixed messages on the matter over the weekend.

Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling said on Sunday there were "no plans" to keep students in university over Christmas. However, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said it would only be possible for young people to visit their families at the end of the term if the country follows existing guidance.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also refused to rule out banning students from returning home for the festive period.

Labour has also called for guarantees from Mr Williamson that all students who are required to self-isolate will be able to access their education remotely and wants him to declare what mental health support will be put in place for those who have to stay indoors.

The party will also ask the secretary of state "what his message is for parents and those students who have not yet moved to campus" given the current situation across the UK, along with what help will be provided to students' unions to allow them to continue to provide pastoral support to students on and off campus.

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