The Tories are well aware that the public won’t endlessly give them the benefit of the doubt on their handling of the coronavirus crisis. They are also aware that one of the most tangible signs to people that the government is still not in control of things is if schools fail to open – or have to rapidly close again – this autumn.
Boris Johnson’s op-ed in the Mail on Sunday makes clear that he and his colleagues appreciate this, and that reopening schools will be the ‘national priority’. There is also plenty of briefing that Gavin Williamson’s ‘head will be on the chopping block’ if English schools don’t start back next month.
The biggest blockage to this happening is the question of whether it is safe for pupils to return to the classroom. Ministers are hoping that a Public Health England study due to be published later this year showing a low risk of transmission in schools will be enough to convince parents, teachers and the unions that it is indeed safe. That’s why Johnson writes that ‘now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so’.
Having declared it is safe, the Tories are now busy attacking Labour for refusing to agree. This morning the party’s shadow education secretary Kate Green gave an interview to Times Radio, in which she refused to say that it was safe for schools to reopen. This is how the exchange went:
Interviewer: ‘My question was, is it safe, not is it essential?’
Green: ‘Well, as I say the work is being done now to make schools safe, but more is needed to support those schools, they may need more resources, for example, for extra cleaning or to stagger the school day, or to make sure that children can travel to and from safely’
Interviewer: ‘And if it doesn't, then you'll step up at the end of September and say it's not safe?’
Green: ‘I will say that it's really vital that children are in school, and every step must be taken to keep them safe there’
Interviewer: ‘I totally accept that, which is why I suppose I'm may be a little bit surprised you're not yet prepared to say it is safe. You're saying it's the safest place for them to be but you won't say it's safe’.
Green: ‘I think we're going around a bit and circles here, I mean schools are doing all they can to make their schools safe’
The Tories have seized on this as a sign that Labour is listening more to the teaching unions than it is to the needs of children who are suffering socially and mentally after missing months of school. But it’s a risky line of attack, given how reasonable Green sounded in her interview today.
She is a far more mature politician than her predecessor Rebecca Long-Bailey and gave a very strong performance, including reciting with real enthusiasm a piece of Tennyson. Her objections were merely whether schools did indeed have all the resources they need in order to reopen, which is, after all, the sort of thing you’d expect a responsible opposition to be checking, rather than breathlessly supporting the government’s plans. Given those plans haven’t always worked out as well as ministers said they would over this pandemic so far, it doesn’t seem particularly recalcitrant of Green to sound hesitant.