It isn’t clear why Boris Johnson told Andrew Marr on January 3 that parents should send their children to primary school the following day – only for it then to be announced that these would close. “The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households,” he said at that evening’s press conference.
It may be that the Prime Minister saw new information between the Sunday and the Monday, but what is certain is that the idea that schools may be “vectors for transmission” wouldn’t have been new to him.
It was a feature of discussion the previous Friday at a meeting of senior Ministers. Matthew Hancock and Michael Gove wanted primary schools closed. Gavin Williamson wanted them kept open. Johnson sided with Williamson.
We suspect that the explanation is to do with character rather than briefings. Those who have worked with the Prime Minister know that he likes to keep decisions to himself, answers gnomic, people guessing – and to move late.
There is an element of divide and rule about the Prime Minister, which helps to explain why Dominic Cummings ultimately had to go. (Having another person telling him what to do, more or less, never lasts for all that long.)
Another way of putting it is that gnawing on a problem, like a bear worrying away at a bone, is Johnson’s preferred method of making up his mind about it, and it can’t be said that this solitary, secretive method has prevented him from reaching the top in politics.
What Bagehot believed of the monarchy is certainly true of the way Johnson thinks: one cannot let daylight in on magic. We say all this as a way of introducing his latest musings-aloud about school re-openings, made yesterday.
“We’re looking at the data as it comes in, we’re looking at the rates of infection. As you know…groups one to four are going to be vaccinated by February 15, but before then we’ll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures”.
This has excited the lockdown-sceptic Daily Telegraph, but we reproduce the next part of its analysis of what he said this morning without further comment.
“A spokesman later admitted that the Prime Minister’s words could have been interpreted in two ways – that the Government might do something before February 15 or consider what to do before February 15.”
Now, it could be that Johnson was rolling the pitch, or spoke in hope, but we suspect that he also wanted to keep people onside. In this case, shutdown-sceptic – or should we simply say anti-lockdown? – Conservative MPs.
Fourteen of these voted against the present shutdown (counting tellers), and at least seven of them are supporting a campaign called UsForThem.
It wants schools opened immediately [our italics] “or at the very least to publish the work it has done to show that the schools shutdown is proportionate”.
They are joined by, among others, our columnist Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, and Mark Harper, co-Chair of the Covid Recovery Group.
The latter wants “a definitive plan to be published ahead of February 15 that will allow for restrictions to begin to be lifted by March 8 – three weeks after the Government’s four groups of prioritised people have received their first vaccine dose.
The Group didn’t vote as a block against the present lockdown, and the call for a mid-February date is clearly intended as one that its members can rally round. Especially, as we now see, when the sensitive subject of school closures is concerned.
With Matt Hancock, on the one hand, suggesting that schools may not re-open until after Easter; some Tory MPs wanting them to admit pupils now, and Gavin Williamson wanting them to do so soon, we suspect that the Prime Minister was pouring oil on troubled waters.
Labour is due to ask an urgent question about schools today in the Commons, and the Education Secretary to make a statement later this week.
“The later it comes, the more good news for schools there is likely to be,” one source told ConservativeHome. One might have thought that the key element in decision-making is how many pupils or teachers would return soon – given the hospitalisation and death figures.
But sources claim that the potential reluctance of either or both is not the key factor in decision-making. “It will be the verdict of the scientists,” we were told.
Schools need a fortnight or so to prepare for re-opening and Easter Sunday falls this year on April 4. All in all, the Government is clearly mulling a date before then, at least for primary schools in the least infected areas.
An opening date before the half-term week beginning on February 15 would mean the necessary preparations beginning next week. We don’t believe that this is going to happen. The best means of speeding reopening up, and giving some relief to this beleaguered generation of children, would be to prioritise teachers in the vaccine queue.