Covid: Gavin Williamson misses schools debate as Labour demands plan for reopening

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will not be in the Commons to answer questions on the reopening of schools. Credit: PA

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has missed a debate on the reopening of schools, with opposition parties demanding the government sets out a plan for what will happen after the February half-term.

When England's lockdown was announced, the prime minister said it was his hope that coronavirus levels would be sufficiently reduced by mid-February, so schools could be the first to reopen when the half-term holidays end two weeks later.

Since then, despite Covid-19 transmission dropping marginally, ministers have been hinting that schools may not reopen when half term ends.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to put a timetable on the reopening of schools when asked on Monday if pupils would be back by Easter.

And Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, when tracked down by reporters on Monday, declined to provide any further detail, simply saying he wants "to see all children back into school at the earliest moment".

The lack of clarity around the reopening of schools has prompted Labour Shadow education secretary Kate Green to ask an urgent question in the House of Commons this afternoon.

She requested the education secretary be summoned to answer questions, but Schools Minister Nick Gibb is responding on behalf of the government instead.

The Department for Education explained Mr Williamson's absence, saying he appeared in the Commons twice last week, was at the Education Select Committee to answer questions from MPs the week before that, and delivered a statement to the House a week prior to that.

The department added that it is not unusual for ministers to answer urgent questions, and Schools Minister Gibb has a key role in responding to schools business.

Labour's whips office questioned why Mr Williamson was not appearing in the Commons to answer an urgent question on plans for schools.

The office's Twitter account posted: "Where's @GavinWilliamson?

"There's an urgent question in Parliament today which is of huge importance to millions of students, parents, teachers & staff looking for answers on the Government's plans for the reopening of educational settings. Gavin Williamson isn't turning up."

The prime minister's official spokesman, asked if Mr Johnson had lost faith in Mr Williamson to do the job, said: "No. The Education Secretary continues to do a good job and continues to work closely with schools as we move through the pandemic.

"It remains that we want to see children back in school as fast as possible, but we must do that in a way that is consistent with keeping the infection rate down."

Ministers have repeatedly said schools will be the first to reopen "when it is safe to do so" but Labour wants to know what criteria the government is using to inform decisions.

Labour's shadow schools minister Wes Streeting said: "The reason we're putting the government under pressure today, is that the government hasn't set out what criteria they will use to judge when schools can safely open to all pupils."

He claimed there isn't a plan of action to make schools as safe as possible when pupils do return, adding: "Education has been an afterthought throughout the pandemic."

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston predicted that the government will keep most schools in England closed till mid-April, but some might open in March.

Political Editor Robert Peston predicts most schools to remain closed till mid-April:

He said: "The earliest that the prime minister can review all of this is February 15 - we've already heard the government is going to give schools two weeks notice to reopen .

"I've done some calculations and my own view is it is possible that some schools will start to reopen in March but the likelihood is that the vast majority won't be able to reopen until after the Easter holidays - we're looking at mid-April, something like that. "