You couldn’t make it up. Less than three weeks ago, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was threatening to take legal action against schools in Islington and Greenwich, in London, if they closed a few days early for Christmas in light of alarming increases in Covid infection rates. On Wednesday night, primary schools in these boroughs were told that they would need to reopen as usual on Monday, unlike those in most other London boroughs, despite their high infection rates and a hospital in Greenwich declaring a major incident just a couple of days before that. Then, on Friday evening, Williamson led the government in its first U-turn of the year to announce that these schools would be closing from Monday after all, giving parents and teachers precisely zero opportunity to make arrangements.
It is just the latest example of Williamson’s breathtaking incompetence. At every turn in this pandemic, he has made missteps that will affect children for the rest of their lives. A half-decent education secretary would have worked with teaching unions to set in train a staged reopening of schools last May when infection rates were falling, as senior paediatricians were calling for at the time. They would have put on a programme of structured outdoor activities over the summer holidays for children who had missed months of school. They would have properly invested in equipping schools and homes for distance learning in the event of the second wave everyone was expecting. They would have introduced a school-wide test, track and trace scheme run by public health experts, rather than expecting headteachers to organise and oversee volunteer-led mass testing with virtually no notice. They would have stumped up for a tuition fee rebate for undergraduates and asked universities to move to distance learning rather than encouraging students to spread the virus across the country, which has resulted in many young people forking out for a university experience that has involved long spells of self-isolating in boxrooms. None of this is rocket science. It just takes a little imagination, a modicum of competence and a tiny bit of passion for wellbeing.
But this is an education secretary who appears to have no interest in his brief and little care for the nation’s children. This former chief whip, who boasts about keeping pet tarantulas in his office and poses for photos with a whip on his desk, is the ultimate caricature-as-cabinet-minister. We desperately needed the government to collaborate with schools to protect children’s education as much as possible in this pandemic. But last May, Williamson preferred picking a fight with the teaching unions via the tabloids rather than working behind the scenes to get schools reopened as quickly as possible. Pubs and bars reopened as schools stayed shut. Last week, Williamson’s allies were briefing madly about the “enormous battle” he was facing with cabinet “lockdowners” to ensure schools stayed open. Last week’s hotchpotch of an announcement was the result of this false positing of this decision as a fight between education and health. Outside cabinet, he has succeeded in driving the supremely pragmatic headteachers’ union into launching a legal action against the government for requiring most primary schools to open this week.
This is a mad approach. The idea that critical decisions about school opening should be determined by cabinet compromise hashed out between the “hawks” and “doves” is ludicrous. Schools should be the last thing to close. We are probably at that point now, but with vaccine rollout already under way, this could have perhaps been avoided had the government not chosen to ease social restrictions in December or implemented a circuit-breaker lockdown earlier than November. Government communications have been a total mess: the message in the run-up to Christmas should have been to stay home not just to protect the NHS but also to keep schools open.
This is much more than a tale of one man’s incompetence. It is part of a bigger story of a populist takeover of a governing party just before the biggest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War. The consequences of Brexit go way, way beyond our relationship with the European Union. The crisis it unleashed in the Conservative party has purged it of nuance and governing competence, leaving a cabinet stuffed with insipid loyalists and has ushered in a style of politics that favours culture wars over what is in the national interest. Williamson is not the exception, but the norm: prime ministerial wannabes see the route to No 10 as a House of Cards-style role play. Politics is a game, not about getting stuff done.
What makes it worse is that we have a male-dominated cabinet so insulated from the real world by wealth and privilege that they perceive the stakes as vastly reduced. Do they have any idea of the impact that closing schools at the drop of the hat has on working parents, mostly mums? Perhaps they would not be so resolute about slashing universal credit by more than £1,000 a year from April if they bothered to find out what life as a parent working in a low-paid job is really like.
The reality is that Covid has driven the stakes higher than ever. Yet Williamson is living proof that the normal political rules have been turned on their head. He is a new species of cabinet minister: too rubbish to fail. Despite having lost the confidence of teachers and parents alike, he is being kept in post as the fall guy who will take the rap for all the government’s dreadful education decisions when this is all over. It is a whole generation of children that will pay the price.