Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has ducked a legal battle with the government and asked the borough’s schools to open their doors again.
Thorpe’s announcement ends 42 hours of disruption which began on Sunday afternoon when he asked schools to close from today because of increasing coronavirus cases. Heads complained they had been taken by surprise, while academies – which are not under town hall control – simply ignored his instructions. After lessons ended on Monday, the chaos was compounded by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who sent a letter to schools ordering them to reverse their decision and threatening legal action against the town hall.
The stand-off ended as it began: with an announcement on Thorpe’s personal Twitter account posted before it was released by the council. While there was widespread sympathy with Thorpe’s decision, the way he announced Sunday’s decision came in for criticism, including from heads.
Thorpe said he had secured an agreement that all Greenwich residents, whether they have symptoms or not, can get tested for coronavirus; these can be booked via gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test, which will offer a local testing centre or a test by post.
“While I cannot agree that this is the correct choice for our schools, I also cannot justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts. Consequently, I have no choice but to ask our schools to keep their doors open to all students rather than just continuing with online learning,” he said in a letter to parents.
“My motivation has never been about a legal battle with the Government, as frankly we all have enough to do. Based on the information I had before me, I believed that this was the correct course of action for Greenwich.”
- Sunday evening: Close your schools, Greenwich Council tells heads
- Monday morning: We’ll stay open, academies say
- Tuesday morning: Government and Greenwich Council squabble
In a response to Williamson, Greenwich’s head of legal services, John Scarborough, suggested that the secretary of state may himself have acted outside the law, saying “the Royal Borough of Greenwich has not ordered schools to close. It cannot therefore order schools to re-open.”
“We are surprised that you did not supply the advice upon which you rely in respect of the incidence or transmission of coronavirus, in particular as the letters that you sent yesterday and that you wish us to send on your behalf to schools makes reference to advice given by the deputy chief medical officer and pegional public health team,” he said.
“We think it would be helpful for this advice to be supplied and published today in order to provide reassurance to schools and parents.”
It added: “This case was not about preventing schools re-opening in January: nor was it about seeking to usurp the powers of the Secretary of State. Our figures at the weekend were extremely worrying and our view was that the public health risk to students and residents of Greenwich outweighed the educational damage of switching to remote working for a very short period of time.”
Last week, schools were allowed to close early in Basildon, Essex. Figures released yesterday show that cases among 10-14 year-olds there had risen to 1,061 per 100,000 on 9 December; Greenwich’s cases among 10-14-year-olds were at 325 per 100,000, numbers that will be watched even more closely than usual in the coming days.
Greenwich’s Tory opposition leader Nigel Fletcher said it was “the inevitable response. I know [Danny Thorpe] acted in what he believed to be the best interests of children & families- as we all try to. This was the wrong way to have gone about it, but we do need action to deal with the alarming increase in cases, and I know we agree on that.”
However, in a sign of the personal rancour that characterises politics in Greenwich, Matt Morrow, the cabinet member for education, responded: “I absolutely understand that some people don’t agree, but those who lack the courage to state their own views should pause before criticising us for the time of day we took a stand.”
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