U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday night of a new national lockdown in England marked one of the most mind-melting U-turns yet in the short history of the government — and ran counter to ministers’ previous insistence that schools should stay open.
Here’s a brief timeline of how it played out:
December 14: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened councils in the London boroughs of Greenwich and Islington with legal action, forcing them to keep schools open despite rising COVID cases.
December 21: Williamson said mass-testing meant children could return to school in the new year, after the Christmas break.
December 22: The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised ministers to close schools in January.
December 31: Williamson delayed the reopening of secondary schools by two weeks, but told primary schools in much of London they should reopen.
January 2: Williamson U-turned on London primary schools and kept them closed, but said other primaries across England should open.
January 3: Prime Minister Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” and told primaries to reopen the following day. Schools across the country defied the order, however, and emailed parents to say they were shutting.
January 4: In the morning, Department for Education civil servants were told there were no plans to close schools or cancel exams, according to Politics Home reporter John Johnston. In the evening, the prime minister shut all schools for seven weeks and canceled exams this summer.
Johnson’s explanation. The prime minister said during his televised address: “Parents whose children were in school today may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner. The answer is simply that we have been doing everything in our power to keep schools open, because we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances. And I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children — children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of COVID. The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”