School closures row escalates as anxieties mount over Christmas bubbles

Sienna Rodgers
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Bumping up London, along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, to Tier 3 could not wait until the review originally scheduled for Wednesday. Matt Hancock has announced that the capital will face the toughest restrictions from tomorrow, and that the increase in cases could be linked to a new variant of Covid-19. (There is no evidence yet that this is cause for worry.) Labour in response continued to bang the drum for fixing the test and trace system by scrapping Serco. But perhaps the most pertinent point Jonathan Ashworth made was that the government was “warned” Tier 2 would not be enough to contain the spread – and in some areas, like Kent, Tier 3 is not enough either. It’s not looking good for Boris Johnson’s tier system. But in Wales, too, Mark Drakeford has suggested another lockdown could be due after Christmas.

The row over school closures has escalated, with Sadiq Khan and some Labour local authorities on the one side, and the government and the Labour leadership on the other. There has been a huge increase in cases among 11- to 19-year-olds, which prompted the mayor to call for schools to be closed early and for longer, but the government has decided to take legal action to force them to stay open. As London councils chair Georgia Gould said, councils like Greenwich are doing their best and acting on public health advice. Labour frontbencher Rachel Reeves was clear when she declared yesterday that “schools should be the last thing to close”. The party does not want to be accused of taking a relaxed attitude to closures.

The leadership does not yet appear to have taken a position on Christmas, however, and the situation is becoming increasingly anxious. On the record, No 10 has rejected suggestions that it will review the planned relaxation of rules. After all, the plans got buy-in from all four nations and Keir Starmer has not questioned the idea of making an exception for Christmas. If people are intent on seeing each other at the end of a really tough year, wouldn’t it be better not to start a rule-breaking pattern of behaviour, making breaches in the new year more likely? That was the logic. But clearly everyone is worried, with ministers now emphasising the importance of ‘personal responsibility’. Other countries, such as Germany, are making very different decisions.

Andy Burnham and I covered all of these issues and more in our live event last night. The Greater Manchester mayor believed schools “should have been included” in the national lockdown and makes the point that there is lots of disruption anyway as pupils are repeatedly being sent home. “If I was running this thing right now, I would pretty much have the country in Tier Two,” he told me, rejecting the five-day Christmas bubbles as “far too risky”. Burnham also set out big plans for Labour on devolution in England, believing it to be absolutely key for the party, said he was “not plotting any return to Westminster” but not ruling it out one day in the future either, and had some big ideas for reform in parliament. Catch up with my write-up and the video here to watch it back.

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