This things, you can’t make it up.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action against schools in London’s Islington and Greenwich boroughs less than three weeks ago when they closed a few days early for Christmas in the face of alarmingly high rates of covid infection. Elementary schools in those boroughs were told on Wednesday night that they would have to reopen as usual on Monday, unlike those in most other London boroughs, even though infection rates were very high and a hospital in Greenwich had confirmed a major incident only days earlier. Then, on Friday night, in the first about-face of the year, Williamson led the government to declare that those schools will close after all beginning Monday, giving parents and teachers precisely zero chance to take precautions. It’s just the latest instance of the stunning incompetence of Williamson.
He has made missteps at every point of this pandemic that will affect kids for the rest of their lives.
As infection rates declined, a half-decent education secretary would have partnered with teachers’ unions to implement a phased reopening of schools last May, as leading pediatricians called for at the time. For children who had missed months of training, it would have set up a curriculum of organized outdoor activities during summer vacations. In the event of the second wave that everyone predicted, they would have invested properly in equipping schools and homes. Instead of asking school leaders to coordinate and supervise volunteer-led mass testing with almost no warning, they would have developed a school-wide testing, tracking, and tracing system led by public health experts. Instead of encouraging students to spread the virus across the world, they would have recommended a reduction in tuition for undergraduates and asked colleges to turn to distance learning, which has resulted in many young people paying for a university experience that has included long stretches of self-isolation in cubbyholes. None of this is the science of rockets.
Brexit has put cultural wars in the position of what is in the national interest, but this is an education minister who seems to have little interest in his mission and no interest in the children of the country. It just requires a little creativity, a modicum of integrity, and a little bit of passion for well-being. The perfect caricature of a cabinet minister is this former chief whip, who boasts of holding tarantulas in his office and poses for pictures with a whip on his desk. During this pandemic, we desperately needed the government to collaborate with schools to secure the education of children as much as possible.
But last May, instead of working behind the scenes to have schools reopened as soon as possible, Williamson decided to argue with the teachers’ unions through the tabloids. While schools stayed closed, pubs and bars reopened.
Williamson’s supporters bitterly announced last week the “enormous fight” he would have to have with members of the Cabinet to ensure that schools remained open.
The consequence of this misrepresentation of this decision as a battle between education and health was the hodgepodge of announcements last week. He has succeeded beyond the Cabinet in getting the extremely proactive association of principals to file a lawsuit against the government for ordering the opening of most elementary schools this week. “The notion that a cabinet agreement between the “hawks” and “doves” should decide crucial decisions regarding school openings is ludicrous.
The last thing to close should be schools. We are possibly at that stage now, although this might have been avoided with the implementation of vaccinations already underway if the government had not opted to loosen social controls in December or to impose school closures earlier than November. The communication of the government was a complete mess: the message should have been to remain home in the run-up to Christmas, not just to protect the NHS but also to keep schools open. This is far more than the tale of the stupidity of one guy.
It is part of a broader tale of a populist takeover of a ruling party on the verge of the country’s biggest crisis since the Second World War. The