'I don't know': Plans to reopen English schools next month up in the air after minister admits growing revolt

Robert Buckland rows back from target date – less than two weeks’ away – acknowledging worried town halls can keep some schools closed

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 20 May 2020 09:08
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Robert Buckland 'does not know' if schools will reopen on 1 June

A cabinet minister has admitted he does not know if schools in England will reopen on 1 June as planned, after a growing revolt from teachers and local councils.

Robert Buckland rowed back from the target date – less than two weeks’ away – acknowledging safety fears and that town halls probably had the power to keep some schools closed.

“I’m not going to sit here and pretend that suddenly on 1 June everything will be uniform – I don’t know,” the justice secretary said.

A total of 11 local authorities, including some Conservative-run, have either stated outright opposition to the reopening, or warned it must be delayed.

School governors have warned it will be hard to ignore the views of councils – something Mr Buckland appeared to back, when he said some directly employed teaching staff.

“I don't think any of us want to put either children or our dedicated teaching staff in any danger at all, and the question of being safe is clearly paramount,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“So, we're all working towards 1 June and planning for that return, but I accept the point that there may well be issues from employers that need to be addressed.”

The justice secretary added: “I utterly respect and understand the concerns that we are hearing from some parts of the sector.”

The tone is a marked change from Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who expects all English primary schools to reopen on 1 June if the government's five tests have been met.

But opponents now have a powerful ally in Angela McLean, the deputy chief scientific adviser, who opposed further lockdown-easing before the test-and-trace scheme to catch new infections is finally up and running.

Any further lifting of restrictions should be based on “observed levels of infection...and not on a fixed date”, she told the Downing Street daily briefing.

John Edmunds, another member of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), also said the system needed to be “embedded and working well” before schools could reopen.

A Labour spokesman suggested local councils would make their own decisions.

"Ultimately councils will want to do what is in the best interests of children and families in their area,” he said.

"Infection rate varies from area to area so it’s not surprising some councils have particular concerns.”

Mr Buckland admitted test-and-trace would not be “fully developed” in England for several weeks, adding: “I think it won't necessarily be as widespread and as full-blown as we would like [by 1 June].

“I think that would develop over the next several weeks, over the next month or so. It's a combination of that app and of the track-and-trace volunteers who are being trained as we speak.”

And he acknowledged the government had chosen to protect the NHS ahead of care homes, where at least 15,000 deaths have now taken place.

“That's right and I think that was absolutely essential,” he told Sky News. “Now is not time to blame people. I think that would be wholly counterproductive.”

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