20 December 2023

Gavin Williamson criticises Boris Johnson’s ‘panic’ pandemic school closures

20 December 2023

Former pandemic-era education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson has criticised Boris Johnson’s “panic” decision to close schools in January 2021.

In a witness statement to the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry, the Tory ex-Cabinet minister said he considered resigning over the matter.

Sir Gavin, who has not given evidence in person but provided a statement for Module 2 of Baroness Heather Hallett’s probe, said his advice to the then-prime minister was “unequivocal: we needed to ensure that children could return to school in January 2021.

It was a panic decision, made without having children's interests front and centre

“Unlike the first lockdown, we now had unequivocal evidence that school closures were damaging for children’s education, development and health.”

Sir Gavin said his advice “was initially taken into account” by Mr Johnson in December 2020, allowing him to work with headteachers and officials on the return-to-school plans “all through the Christmas period”.

But on January 4 2021, Mr Johnson announced a third national lockdown for England which saw schools shut to most pupils, just hours after he told parents it was safe to send their children back to the classroom.

“It was a panic decision, made without having children’s interests front and centre,” Sir Gavin said, writing that it was wrong on two grounds.

“Firstly, we had seen the impact, especially on the most disadvantaged children, of not having schools open and operating as normally as possible. My concern was that a second set of restrictions would set back children’s educational recovery and progress even further.

“Secondly, I felt it was wholly unnecessary. We had seen exceptionally high rates of Covid-19 in a number of northern towns and cities, yet had been able to keep schools open in these areas over this period. While this would be exceptionally challenging at a national level, I felt it was the right thing to do, as keeping children in school was so beneficial to them.”

Sir Gavin continued: “I did very briefly consider whether I should resign, but I felt it was not the right thing.”

He was concerned quitting would “distract attention away from the key policy issues and focus attention on personal political issues”.

Sir Gavin was education secretary from July 2019 until September 2021.

His handling of disruption to schools during the height of the pandemic and the grading of GCSEs and A-levels after exams were cancelled was widely seen as disastrous.

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