Primary schools in Greenwich have been thrown into confusion for the second time this month after the borough became one of the few in London not to be told to keep its schools closed next week.
Schools in 23 boroughs, including Bexley, Bromley and Southwark, have been told to close until 18 January by education secretary Gavin Williamson. But neither Greenwich nor Lewisham’s schools have been told to close their doors, leading to a torrent of criticism from MPs and senior councillors.
Secondary schools across England will have a staggered opening, with pupils taking exams returning on 11 January and others going back the following week. In Greenwich, pupils taking exams have been invited to take fast lateral flow tests at The Valley in Charlton this weekend in an attempt to find young people who do not know they have the virus.
Greenwich’s omission follows the row earlier this month when council leader Danny Thorpe announced on a Sunday afternoon that he was asking all schools in the borough to close early for Christmas because of rising coronavirus rates.
Headteachers and parents were caught on the hop by the announcement – made on Thorpe’s personal Twitter account before parents and even some headteachers were informed – and academies opted not to close. Williamson threatened Greenwich with legal action over the issue, forcing the council to climb down.
But rates have continued to rise, and on Sunday Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich – which serves Greenwich borough and part of Bexley – declared a “major incident” over fears that oxygen was running out.
In the seven days to Christmas Day, 704 people per every 100,000 in Greenwich had tested positive for coronavirus, according to Public Health England figures – compared with 292 two weeks before that. Rates are now up to 695 in Lewisham (243 two weeks ago), where primary schools are also expected to stay open. In both boroughs, the rates are higher than in Southwark – 673 per 100,000 – where schools have been asked to close.
In Bexley, rates have reached 1,006 per 100,000 – meaning one per cent of the population has tested positive. Two weeks before, the rate was 408.
Thorpe said: “There appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together. Kensington and Chelsea has one of the lowest infection rates for the whole of the capital, yet their children and young people are being afforded the extra protection that apparently Greenwich students don’t need.
“We are writing to the Secretary of State tonight to ask for clarification of the selection criteria, but understand one of these might be hospital pressures. With the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich having declared an internal incident this week, and also serving neighbouring borough Bexley, which is on the list, we need to understand why Greenwich is being treated differently to other boroughs who appear to be in much stronger positions.”
Local MPs also supported his position. Greenwich & Woolwich’s Matt Pennycook called it “a genuinely baffling decision even for the Department for Education under Williamson”, while Erith & Thamesmead’s Abena Oppong-Asare said it was “a jaw dropping and deeply worrying decision”. “I can only think a mistake must have been made,” she added.
Eltham’s Clive Efford said: “I want schools to open as much as anyone, but based on the government’s own [case rate] figures for areas in Eltham bordering Bexley and Bromley, the Secretary of State clearly is wrong and must reconsider.”
Even the Conservative opposition in Greenwich reacted with dismay, with leader Nigel Fletcher saying the different treatment of London boroughs was “certainly not ideal”.
In Lewisham, cabinet member for democracy Kevin Bonavia said the move was “shambolic. Again.” Lewisham East MP Janet Daby said: “Parents and schools can do without the confusion caused by the government.”
The sense of shambles was deepened when Redbridge, which had been omitted from the list, was added to it later on Wednesday evening. However, Greenwich and Lewisham remained off the list, as did Lambeth, Hackney, Islington, Camden, Haringey, Harrow and Kingston.
While the situation is clearer for secondary schools, pupils in years 11 and 13 have been asked to book lateral flow tests at The Valley on Saturday, Sunday and Monday to find out if they have the virus.
Some other children, including those of key workers, and school staff have also been asked to come for tests. Full details and a booking form are on the Greenwich Council website.
Thorpe said: “We are not aware of any other boroughs planning to offer this service, but we are convinced this is the best way to help secure a safe environment. So, I’m urging parents to have their children take the test and prevent the virus from re-entering schools. Please, take the test and keep our schools safe.”
- Local info: Greenwich | Lewisham | Bexley
- Got symptoms? Book a test now
- Not got symptoms? Book a lateral flow test (Greenwich and Eltham)
- NHS advice | Stay at home | Wash your hands more often
- Official figures on virus spread
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