‘Political grandstanding’: Tory MPs and Labour council clash over reopening schools

Bury’s MPs tell heads that town hall bid to keep schools shut 'does not appear to be based on any scientific or clinical advice'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 19 May 2020 13:48
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Worried mother confronts Gavin Williamson during briefing with demand for schools to stay shut in coronavirus hotspots

The row over whether schools should reopen next month has descended into open warfare between Conservative MPs and a Labour council trying to stop it.

In an extraordinary letter, Tory MPs in Bury have urged head teachers to ignore the town hall’s “political grandstanding” – and make their own decisions for 1 June.

James Daly and Christian Wakeford have told heads that the Labour council “does not have the power to close schools”, which is a matter for governing bodies.

Citing government advice that reopening is safe, the letter says Bury’s attempt to keep schools shut “does not appear to be based on any scientific or clinical advice”.

“This is not a time for political grandstanding, but a sober consideration of the evidence as to whether we can open our schools and colleges,” the two MPs have written.

The clash comes after No 10 declined to say whether councils or schools would be punished for failing to readmit reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils to primary schools in just two weeks’ time.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has urged teachers protesting the guidelines to accept that the poorest and most vulnerable children are at risk from a long shutdown.

He also wants pupils who were preparing for GCSE and A-level exams to have face-to-face time with their teachers before the summer holidays in July.

In a gathering crisis for the government, Liverpool, Wirral and Hartlepool councils have, like Bury, refused to sanction the move, warning coronavirus infections are still too high.

Meanwhile, the troubled track-and-trace scheme to catch new cases has been delayed, with ministers unable to say it will have started by 1 June.

On Monday, Cllr Tamoor Tariq, Bury’s lead member for schools, said he was confident all schools across the borough would “fall in line” with the councils’ decision.

“While high levels of Covid-19 infection in the North West remain, and guidance around practical arrangements for social distancing within educational environments, testing and tracing, and supply of PPE is unclear, the borough will not be reopening schools on 1 June,” he said.

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has tried to dampen down such fears about schools, insisting children are not “high output transmitters” of the virus.

On Monday, he said: “Unlike flu, where we are very clear that children drive transmission in the community to adults, it really does not seem to be the same kind of signal with Covid-19.”

Mr Daly tweeted: “I have today written to all head teachers in the metropolitan borough of Bury.

“We make it clear that @BuryCouncil does not have the power to close schools; this is a matter for SLTs [school leadership teams] and governing bodies of each individual school.”

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