Greenwich backs down over plans to close schools in face of legal action | London

The London borough of Greenwich has been forced to back down over plans to close its schools early and switch to online learning following legal action by the government, which later revealed plans for mass testing in secondary schools across England from January.

School leaders and teaching unions expressed outrage at the late-night legal intervention on Monday by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, describing it variously as “ appalling”, “shameful” and “a step too far” at the end of a term that has been hugely challenging for schools.

Secondary schools, primaries and colleges in Greenwich will fully reopen for face-to-face teaching until the end of term later this week. In a letter to parents, the leader of Greenwich council, Danny Thorpe, said he could not agree this was the best choice for schools in the borough, but neither could he justify using public funds to fight a court battle with the government.

“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 wrote.

The government’s mass testing plans, which should have been a good news story, prompted further criticism from exasperated unions. They said schools had been given no notice and accused the government of supplying tests but not the staff, training or supervision to carry them out effectively.

Under the new proposals, supplies of rapid result lateral flow tests will be delivered from the start of next term to all secondary schools, colleges, special schools and alternative provision in England. Primary schools will follow later.

Staff will be invited to have weekly tests, and staff and students who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive will be eligible for daily testing for seven days to enable them to remain in school if negative.

“The use of lateral flow tests in schools has potential to make a positive impact by helping to break chains of transmission early,” said Paul Whitehouse, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. “But this requires not only sufficient tests but also the trained staff to administer them.”

The Department for Education said schools would be provided with personal protective equipment as well as guidance and training materials.

Councils across England, meanwhile, have been watching the standoff between Greenwich and the Department for Education. On Monday night, Williamson issued a “temporary continuity direction” to the council, demanding the immediate withdrawal of a letter issued to headteachers over the weekend advising them to close schools early and switch to remote learning amid rising Covid infection rates in the capital.

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Covid at Christmas: how do rules vary across Europe?

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France reopened non-essential shops this month, allowing Christmas shopping to begin. But an uptick in new infections since then means that while travel is permitted from 15 December, a nationwide 8pm to 7am curfew will begin then that will be lifted for 24 December, but not Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Bars and restaurants will not reopen until January and private gatherings are limited to six adults.

Germany‘s “lockdown light”, with bars and restaurants closed since November, has not proved effective and the country has shut down further, closing all bar essential shops (such as supermarkets and pharmacies) as well as hair and beauty salons until at least 10 January. A maximum of five people from two households may meet, except for 24, 25 and 26 December when up to four close family members from other households can be invited.

Austria’s strict lockdown has ended and the country is carrying out a mass programme of 10 million tests over the next fortnight with the aim of allowing more families to reunite over the festive period. Christmas markets have been cancelled.

Italy‘s prime minister has said tougher restrictions will be needed over the holiday period,but they have not yet been announced. Inter-regional travel is already banned from 20 December to 6 January except for work, health or emergency reasons, and Italians may not leave their home towns on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. Midnight mass on 24 December has been brought forward so worshippers can get home before a nationwide 10pm-5am curfew. 

Spain has appealed for people to be responsible but will allow movement between regions “for family reasons” between 23 December and 6 January. Regional curfews, which range from 10pm to midnight, will be pushed back to 1.30am on 24 and 31 December, when the limit for gatherings will be raised from six to 10, a measure that will also apply on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

The Netherlands has imposed a tough Christmas lockdown, closing non-essential shops and businesses, gyms, museums, cinemas and theatres for five weeks until 19 January. Bars and restaurants have been closed since mid-October. Schools are switching to online learning and people advised to stay at home. Households may invite up to two guests a day except for 24-26 December, when the ceiling is raised to three, excluding children under 13. 

Belgium has said households may be in close contact with just one extra person over the Christmas period, although people living on their own will be allowed to meet two others. Fireworks are to be banned on New Year’s Eve to limit gatherings.

Poland will allow people to spend Christmas only with their immediate family, with no more than five guests to be invited to each household until at least 27 December and travel banned outside people’s home towns.

Britain is relaxing restrictions over the holiday with “Christmas bubbles” allowing up to three households to mix between 23 and 27 December. Scientists, government advisers and medical experts have called for an urgent rethink, suggesting the move could result in a disastrous third wave in the New Year.

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

Although the government has previously threatened legal action, this latest move signals its determination to keep schools fully open in the run-up to the Christmas holidays and beyond. If Greenwich failed to comply, the Department for Education could have sought a court injunction.

Islington council in north London and Waltham Forest in the east of the capital have also advised schools to close, except to the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable, and switch to online lessons in the last few days of term to help slow the spread of the virus. There have also been significant numbers of school closures in Basildon, Essex, where Covid rates are high, but all remain open for online lessons. The government has not taken any further legal action.

Launching legal action on Monday, Williamson said: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors. I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.

“That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was an “unseemly” end to a gruelling term when schools should have been allowed some flexibility rather than faced with legal threats. “That will not be easily forgotten.”

He warned that many parents would keep their children at home regardless, and though he welcomed testing he added: “It isn’t perhaps the ideal moment to be announcing a huge mass testing programme when schools and colleges are already under massive pressure on multiple fronts and with only a few days of the autumn term left.”

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union said: “The variable accuracy of lateral flow tests is already a concern and the effectiveness of the testing programme will need to be closely monitored to ensure it does not undermine the safety of pupils or staff.”

Williamson said: “This huge expansion of rapid testing for those working in education is a milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all.”

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