Schools return next month 'now at risk' thanks to 'chaos, confusion and incompetence' from government, warns Keir Starmer
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Credit: PA)
A week of "chaos, confusion and incompetence" by Boris Johnson's government has put the heralded return of all schools in September at "serious risk", Sir Keir Starmer has warned.
Ministers have repeatedly vowed that all pupils will be back in their classrooms next month, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said to be facing the sack if the plans, described by the PM as "a national priority", go awry.
But Labour leader Sir Keir said while the Government should have spent the last two weeks planning for the safe return of children, it had instead been dealing with the "mess" of A-level results, culminating in a forced U-turn on the use of a controversial algorithm to grade pupils in the absence of exams.
In an interview with the Observer, Sir Keir said: “I want to see children back at school next month, and I expect the Prime Minister to deliver on that commitment. However, the commitment is now at serious risk after a week of chaos, confusion and incompetence from the government.
“Ministers should have spent the summer implementing a national plan to get all children back to school. Instead, the last two weeks have been wasted clearing up a mess of the government’s own making over exam results.”
The Labour leader added: "Restoring public confidence and getting a grip on the Department for Education must be Downing Street’s number-one priority this week. Failure to do so will leave the government’s promise of ‘levelling up’ in tatters."
Some senior Tories believe Mr Williamson has lost the confidence of his officials, accusing him of seeking to shift blame for the exams fiasco onto civil servants.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Commons liaison committee, told the Observer the frontbencher had made a bad situation worse and caused a “complete breakdown” of trust in his department.
Another influential backbencher told the paper he would be “amazed” if Williamson held onto his post for long, and that his reputation in the education world had been “irreparably damaged”.
Meanwhile Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, warned the return of schools could push the rate of Covid infections above the critical R rate of one, leading to more severe lockdown measures.
But he conceded children were more like to be "harmed by not going [to school] than by going, even during this pandemic".
"The chances of many children being damaged by not going to school are incredibly clear and therefore the balance of risk is very strongly in favour of children going to school," he said.
He added that there is "overwhelming clear evidence that the chances of children dying from COVID are incredibly small".
Mr Whitty reiterated the message in a joint intervention with his Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts over the weekend, as all four endorsed the government's aim of getting all pupils back into classrooms nationwide.
According to the Telegraph, Downing Street has made clear there can be “no ifs, no buts” in delivering on the pledge.
“Schools not coming back is not an option,” they added. “Failure is not an option.”