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"You take the decision to close any school with an incredibly heavy heart." - Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson appeared on today’s Good Morning Britain, following the announcement yesterday that the return date for secondary schools, and some primary schools, will be delayed.

Speaking to Sean Fletcher and Charlotte Hawkins, he responded to claims that the decision has taken too long to be made.

He said: “Well, we are going to be seeing over 85 percent of primary schools returning as normal on Monday of next week. We have had to make this late decision and of course we always want to give people the maximum amount of notice but we are dealing with a rapidly changing and rapidly evolving public health situation in terms of a new strain of coronavirus… 

“Before christmas, we wanted to see the rollout, and for all secondary schools to have the option of rolling out mass testing in their schools but we recognise with the spread of this virus, instead of that being an option, we would require all schools to have this mass testing regime, and in order to shift from that being optional to being a requirement, we needed to give them that extra bit of time in order to get that mass testing regime set up so that it isn’t just for the benefit of pupils and staff, it is also for the benefit of the whole community.”

Asked if he would forgive parents and pupils for not trusting the Government, given all the u-turns and late announcements this year, he added: “It is really easy to be acting as a commentator, it is obviously much harder to be able to  take those decisions and then implementing them. But at every stage the Government has sought to act swiftly and in a responsible way, making sure that we are dealing with an incredibly complex,  rapidly evolving public health crisis that isn’t just affecting this country but is affecting countries right across the globe. But yes, it does put an enormous pressure on everyone and it is not just within schools, it is right across the nation. Everyone in Britain has had to make an enormous sacrifice, had to go to enormous lengths in order to be able to deal with this but we do see hope into the future. You see the announcement of the new Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine being approved, you will see the mass rollout of not just the AstraZeneca but the Pfizer vaccine, millions of people getting that vaccine over the coming months. This is the game changer that we have all been waiting fo,  but we still have to ask people to do those extraordinary things. None of us want to have to ask people to do that but we are doing it to protect those people who are the most vulnerable in society.”

On the criteria for how they decided which primary schools would close and which would stay open, he said: “Well you can completely understand as Education Secretary, I want to see all schools open… but we had to listen very carefully to the public health advice that we were given, this was a decision that is taken  jointly by the Health Secretary and myself, looking at the data, not just in terms of the infection rate but the latest data that Public Health England and the Department for Health have in terms of the speed and rate of increase but also looking at the pressure that hospitals are under… but you take the decision to close any school with an incredibly heavy heart. I want schools to be open. I have seen it with my own eyes, with my own children, how much they benefit from being in school and how much they miss from being out of school, so it is with great reluctance that we have to do it.”

Asked whether the exams will go ahead this summer and whether he could guarantee that they will, he responded: “Yes, and that is why we took the move to keep those children who are in those exam cohorts, those exam years, years 11 and 13, still coming into school from the 11th January, making sure they [are] the first ones back into school, even in those areas that have those extra restrictions that are imposed on them… “

On the difficulty of getting children equipment for remote learning and also the infrastructure for mass testing, he said: “There are real challenges. We have already distributed over 550,000 laptops to schools across the country over the last few months, from the 4th of January and over that week, another 150,000 laptops are going to be distributed, we are going to be distributing a total of a million laptops to help and support schools and of course those children from the most disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds.”

He continued: “In terms of the mass testing regime that we are going to be rolling out across schools, we are giving schools that extra support. The reason that we have taken the decision to move back the start of term is to give them that extra time in order to get everything ready.

"We are telling schools that we expect them to put these systems in place but we are also backing that up with an extra 78 million pounds of funding and on the 4th of January, every school is going to be receiving the testing kits, the PPE, all the equipment that they need in order to be able to rollout this mass testing regime in every single secondary school across the country.

"The armed forces have been doing an amazing job, they are offering that sort of training and support… in those exceptional circumstances where schools, despite being provided with the equipment, despite being given the guidance and all the information and the training and the support in order to be able set this up, despite being given the extra 78 million pounds… the armed forces will be able to come in and help those schools get set up if they have not been able to set that up themselves. There is a back-up there for them.”

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