Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
Government WhatsApp messages revealed at the COVID Inquiry suggest that former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected calls for mask-wearing in schools in England because they were in “no surrender mode” towards teaching unions.
The UK’s leading education union has hit out at the revelations, while the Trades Union Congress has said ministers put “politics before people” at a time of national crisis. The evidence came to light in a WhatsApp message from civil service chief Simon Case in August 2020.
According to the message, Williamson ignored warnings over COVID safety in schools because he didn’t want to “give an inch” to education unions. Williamson has been contacted for comment.
Don’t miss a story
The WhatsApp exchange from 26 August 2020 sees Simon Case reply to a question on “What’s the true reason for the u-turn on masks?” from Dominic Cummings.
Case says: “Weeks ago, we recommended to PM that we create permissive guidance around masks, because we could foresee it was going to be a drama in Sept. Gavin [Williamson] discussed at a Covid cttee mtg. Because at that stage it was Unions pressing for masks (no science back-up), Gavin was in “no surrender” mode and didn’t want to give an inch to the unions, so said we should hold firm. PM gave him full support in this approach.”
This is despite the Government’s own guidance stating there was “some evidence” that supported the wearing of face coverings “particularly in poorly ventilated and crowded indoor spaces” such as schools in an update of 24 July 2020.
Face coverings were also mandatory in numerous places in England such as public transport, shops, NHS hospitals, banks and post offices.
Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said he was not surprised by the findings because “Williamson’s much derided period as Education Secretary was driven largely by pettiness”.
“[This] revelation simply confirms what teachers and parents had always suspected – that Gavin Williamson prioritised point scoring over serious engagement with the representatives of hundreds of thousands of education workers about the best way of suppressing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”
Several weeks before this WhatsApp exchange, in July 2020, the NEU wrote to Williamson highlighting the role masks could play in keeping the virus under control in schools and colleges.
Kebede branded Williamson “wholly unsuited” to the role of Education Secretary: “On other issues that the unions were vocal about, such as the roll-out of laptops for lockdown learning or the catastrophic exam grading of 2020, Williamson also dragged his heels.”
TUC assistant general secretary Kate Bell added: “In a time of national crisis, the Conservatives put politics before people. Education leaders righty raised concerns about the need to protect staff and children in schools. But these warnings were dismissed out of hand due to vindictiveness towards unions.
“Parents, pupils, school staff and the public will be horrified to learn that lives were put at risk because ministers were pursuing a petty political vendetta. This can never happen again.”
No 10 was Shambolic
Giving evidence on Monday, Boris Johnson’s former personal private secretary – effectively his head-of-office – Martin Reynolds revealed that the then Prime Minister was unpredictable and “blew]hot and cold on some issues”.
He said it was “very clear that the [COVID] plans were inadequate” at the start of the pandemic.
It also emerged that in a key period when the virus started to spread in the UK – mid-February 2020 – there were no emergency COBRA meetings, no Cabinet meetings, no ministerial boxes discussing the virus, and no communications via email about the pandemic among senior Government figures in the 10-day period between 14 and 24 February.
Hugo Keith KC, Counsel to the COVID Inquiry, suggested this was because it was half-term. Some ministers may have been on holiday.
Asked by Keith if he accepted that there was an “untoward delay of weeks” between middle of February and Friday 13 March – during which time the virus had spread out of control and “relatively speaking little has been done” – Martin Reynolds replied: “I agree.”
Reynolds also pointed to the chaos of No 10 in the early months of 2020: “We were trying to work out what were the priorities… There was unease with some of the messaging actions taking place.” Cummings had planned to bring in ‘weirdos and misfits’ to Downing Street after Johnson’s December 2019 election victory – including a quickly-sacked adviser with “unusual views on eugenics”.
There was also “unease” in the civil service at a so-called “shit list” of civil servants who could be fired in a major reorganisation, in Johnson and Cummings’ “muscular” approach to the civil service, Reynolds said. However, “Cummings wasn’t always pursuing the same agenda as PM,” he added – further adding to the sense of disorder in No 10.
Reynolds also admitted that WhatsApp was used extensively in government throughout the pandemic, but said the “vast majority of WhatsApps were of an ephemeral nature”.
He claimed that WhatsApps “relevant” to decision-making were retained, adding that he “retained all of my Whatsapps – I handed them all over in full”.
However, Reynolds started a WhatsApp group in the early months of 2020 – in which he enabled the ‘disappearing messages’ function, whereby messages auto-delete after a certain amount of time. Asked why he turned it on, he claimed: “I cannot recall” – one of the most common refrains of his evidence to the inquiry.
“I can speculate… I don’t believe it was intended to prevent the inquiry having sight of this… It could have been that I was concerned about people screenshotting and leaking them.”
Hugo Keith KC replied: “These are your closest colleagues.”
Reynolds was also able to review his emails before submission to the COVID Inquiry, he admitted, likely adding to fears over what may have been held back from the official probe.
Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing email@example.com