Sadiq Khan calls for early school closures, more testing and extra support

Sienna Rodgers

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called on the Prime Minister to consider closing secondary schools early and for a longer period over Christmas, amid expectations that London will be bumped up to Tier 3 restrictions this week.

The Labour mayor has written to Boris Johnson with London Councils chair Georgia Gould to express concern over the rise in coronavirus cases in the capital and the need for extra support for workers and businesses.

Khan has demanded that the government urgently put in place priority testing for schools, a compensation scheme before further restrictions come in, and workers to receive “full pay and not just statutory sick pay” to enable self-isolation.

He and Gould, leader of Camden Council, have also suggested to the Prime Minister that face coverings should be “made mandatory in all busy outdoor spaces”, as there is high footfall on high streets due to Christmas shopping.

Khan said: “The surge in coronavirus cases across our capital is deeply concerning. I am calling on the government to urgently provide additional support to get the spread under control, save lives and livelihoods and ensure our NHS is not overwhelmed this winter.

“Increased testing is key to this, which is why I want to see regular asymptomatic testing extended to all those unable to work from home and to students and staff at London’s secondary schools, sixth-form college and FE colleges.”

He added: “2020 has been a dismal year for our once-thriving hospitality sector and world-famous cultural scene, which both contribute billions to our economy and attract millions of visitors. Without protecting them, there can be no meaningful recovery.”

Business Secretary Alok Sharma has indicated that the government will reject the demands on schools being closed earlier and kept closed for longer, telling Sky News: “Our overall message is we want to keep schools open.”

When asked about Khan’s school closures proposal during LBC’s ‘Call Keir’ session this morning, Keir Starmer did not offer his support to the idea. The Labour leader replied: “I am very reluctant to close our schools.”

London’s Greenwich Council has unilaterally decided to ask schools in the area to shut, with Labour council leader Danny Thorpe saying the borough was undergoing a period of “exponential growth” in Covid-19 cases.

The government is set to review coronavirus tier allocations on Wednesday, December 16th. It is expected that the results will be implemented from 19th, before five-day Christmas bubbles are allowed between 23rd and 27th.

Below is the full text of the letter from Sadiq Khan and Georgia Gould.

Dear Prime Minister,

Like you, we are deeply concerned in the rise in cases of Covid-19 across the capital. We are grateful for the government support, from this week, for increased testing in the worst hit boroughs so we can trace and isolate families who are preparing to mix with each other over the holiday period.

However, given the surge in cases in London, and in neighbouring counties of Kent and Essex, further urgent government action is needed to ensure we regain control of the virus. There can be no doubt as to the catastrophic impact Covid-19 has had on lives and livelihoods and our health and care system, not just in London, but the whole country. We are therefore calling on you to take further urgent measures, on the back of public health advice, to prevent a continued increase in cases and to highlight the additional support London needs should the government decide on new tougher restrictions.

Community testing and testing in schools

The biggest spread of the virus in the capital is within education settings and specifically amongst the 10-19 year old age group. If the government is considering moving London into Tier 3 – this will do nothing to address this, while having a catastrophic impact on our economy.

We are grateful that following discussions with the Secretaries of State for Health and MHCLG this week, Mobile Testing Units are now being rolled out in schools in the seven boroughs in North-East London. However, following the guidance that was issued to T3 regions last week on increased testing provision this now needs to be mobilised right across the capital, from tomorrow. London now has 17 local authorities where the 7-day case rate exceeds 200 cases per 100,000, and the 7-day case rate has risen in 32 local authorities compared to the previous week. Levels of testing in London remain the lowest in England and it is vital that asymptomatic testing is extended at a minimum to all Londoners who are unable to work from home, and to all pupils at secondary schools, sixth form and FE colleges this week, so that positive cases are able to self-isolate and prevent ongoing transmission to people in their communities.

All schools, sixth form and FE colleges, not just in the boroughs with higher levels of cases but across London, should be given priority testing tomorrow and Tuesday. This will allow urgent identification of positive cases and ensure those pupils and their families self-isolate before the holidays begin. This would also enable teachers and teaching staff to explain to pupils, before they break up, of the measures they need to take in the holiday period to prevent the spread of infection.

Furthermore, urgent consideration must also be given to closing secondary schools, sixth form and FE colleges a few days early and keeping them closed for longer after Christmas to allow for further testing. All secondary school age children should be able to receive regular testing from January in order to keep down transmission in schools and colleges and keep in-person education open and as safe as possible. Additional resources will also need to be given to support online learning and catch up provision if further restrictions are agreed to be necessary. In addition, it is also vital that there is improved government support for those who need to self-isolate and additional funding to boroughs to strengthen the encouragement of and practical support for those self-isolating.

Support for business

Should the government decide to move London to further restrictions, current support is insufficient to keep many businesses and the self-employed afloat. The Christmas and New Year period provides a huge part of annual takings for the hospitality, culture and events industries, and the period this year was likely to be the difference between businesses surviving the pandemic and failing. For example, UKHospitality warn a move to Tier 3 could see £2.7bn wiped off London hospitality, and up to160,000 jobs permanently at risk by the end of December. Many restaurant suppliers are holding large amounts of stock to cope with the additional Christmas and New Year demand. Much of this will now go to waste.

Theatres and venues in London have begun to reopen, many for the first time since March and after making their venues as safe as possible. Several major Christmas theatre productions are scheduled in December and January in the West End alone. Last minute cancellations of these could prove ruinous. Many did not receive support from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund and the impact on freelancers, artists and the supply chain ecosystem will be devastating. For London’s local independent cinemas, dependent on blockbuster Christmas film releases, closure now represents an existential threat.

The government needs to go much further and we are asking that you urgently put in place a compensation scheme – before any additional restrictions are placed – for all lost income for the crucial festive period based on last year’s returns. For new businesses, compensation should be based on estimates of income using data for similar firms. Workers who are required to self-isolate must also receive full pay and not just statutory sick pay if we are to prevent people returning to work when still infected and spreading the disease.

The Local Restrictions Support Grant is also insufficient given the duration of the crisis and needs urgently increasing. Over £1.8bn of business rate support has been returned by retailers, providing a source of finance to fund this additional support.

Longer term, the government must guarantee business interruption insurance for theatres and the live performance sector – in the film sector, this has got £1bn of production back in business.

With London’s business leaders, we have previously written to you with a roadmap for the safe and full reopening of London’s economy which included specific measures such as extension to the business rates holiday due to expire at end of March – if further restrictions are brought in now, many businesses will be on the brink of collapse and need clarity now. An urgent government response to this roadmap is still needed.

Mandatory wearing of face masks in busy outdoor spaces

We are also asking that you announce face coverings will be made mandatory in all busy outdoor spaces. Many Londoners are now used to wearing face coverings, for example on public transport. This additional step will help contain the virus, especially as many people including young people, are congregating in public places given the holiday season and given the high footfall on our high streets in the run up to Christmas.

We look forward to an urgent response on the matters we have raised. It is important the above steps are taken, and our points addressed before any additional restrictions are placed on London.

Yours sincerely,

Sadiq Khan Cllr Georgia Gould
Mayor of London Chair, London Councils

Cc Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for MHCLG
Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster & Minister for the Cabinet Office
Paul Scully MP, Minister for London
Sir Edward Lister, 10 Downing Street

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