Gavin Williamson has falsely claimed no one knew about the new variant of COVID-19 circulating in the south-east of England when he forced schools in Greenwich to remain open.
On 14 December, the government ordered Greenwich council in London to withdraw a letter to headteachers asking schools to switch to remote learning and threatened them with legal action if they did not comply.
At the time, although COVID cases were rising in many areas of England, schools across the country stayed open and the government insisted they would not be closed.
Appearing before the education select committee on Wednesday, Williamson justified the decision to force the Royal Borough of Greenwich to keep its schools open by saying schools in other parts of the country had higher rates of infection and stayed open.
Here is Gavin Williamson talking this afternoon about the decision on the evening of 14 December to force Greenwich to reopen Schools: "At that stage none of us were aware of the new variant." pic.twitter.com/VNv94r8YSM
— Jo Maugham (@JolyonMaugham) January 13, 2021
He indicated a different course of action might have been taken if the government had known about the new variant of COVID.
He told the committee: “At that stage, none of us were aware of the new variant and we were not aware of the impact that would have.”
However, on 14 December health secretary Matt Hancock announced the discovery of the new variant of COVID-19 in the House of Commons, several hours before the letter threatening legal action was sent to Greenwich council.
Hancock indicated they had found out about the variant a few weeks earlier and the discovery that it was up to 70% more infectious had been known to the government for several days.
When the health secretary addressed the Commons, he told MPs the government had identified over 1,000 cases of the new variant predominantly in south-east England.
Watch: Gavin Williamson: Firms which supply poor food parcels to parents will be named and shamed
Barrister Jo Maugham pointed out the disparity between the timeline of events and Williamson’s justification for taking legal action.
He said: “Has Gavin Williamson just ceased to have any interest in whether what comes out of his mouth is true or not?”
During the same speech to MPs, Hancock put large areas of the South East to Tier 3, which a few days later was raised to Tier 4.
Speaking to the committee on Thursday, Williamson said: “We were in a position where knowledge of the new variant was certainly not something we had any understanding or knowledge.”
He added: “Authorities and schools right across the north of England, right across the Midlands where we were in a position where we’d had this amazing partnership working where we worked together dealing with some really tricky issues.
“And case rates much higher than we were seeing in Greenwich and been in a position where children were able to continue to get an education.”
New powers introduced through the Coronavirus Act allow the government to issue “directions” to heads around education provision during the pandemic, which were used during the government’s decision to threaten Greenwich council.
Williamson also told the committee that he was working on getting vaccines in schools as quickly as possible.
Schools have been closed in England since 5 January after the country was returned to full lockdown to combat the rise in COVID cases.
He said: “It is quite understandably right that the Government has chosen to prioritise those that are most at risk of being hospitalised (for vaccination).
“But… in that next wave where we have to prioritise others, I will make no apology for the fact that I see the top priority as all those who work in schools.”