Education Secretary called to ‘end Invisible Man act’ over university Covid spike

Labour has called for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to “end his Invisible Man act” on the plight of university students as he prepares to face MPs over the spike in higher education coronavirus cases.

Mr Williamson is due to answer an urgent question in the Commons on Tuesday after thousands of students were forced to self-isolate following a surge in cases at universities including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.

According to university statements and local reports this month, at least 25 institutions have seen confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The University of Exeter on Monday took the decision to ask students not to meet indoors with anyone who is not part of their household for the next 14 days.

Despite the unfolding debacle, Labour said its research showed Mr Williamson has not made any public appearances in recent days and nor has he tweeted since September 10 – more than two weeks ago.

On Monday, the South Staffordshire MP took to Instagram to post about a litter pick in his constituency that he had taken part in, rather than the situation at the UK’s universities.

The mounting issues in higher education come only weeks after the Cabinet minister faced calls to resign over his handling of the A-level exam results fiasco.

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Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “After days of silence, this statement is a chance for the Education Secretary to end his Invisible Man act and begin to get to grips with the situation.

“None of this was unforeseeable. Labour and others have warned that campuses would need access to testing.

“But – just as with the exams fiasco over the summer – the Education Secretary has created chaos through his incompetence and failure to act.

“Gavin Williamson must set out what he is doing to resolve these problems and put young people and parents’ minds at rest.”

The Opposition party is demanding that the former chief whip sets out what steps he took over the summer to ensure that students would be able to return to university safely.

Kate Green
Kate Green

Labour also wants clarity that “every student will be able to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas after access to testing” as ministers put out mixed messages on the matter over the weekend.

Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling said on Sunday there were “no plans” to keep students in university over Christmas but earlier Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said it would only be possible for young people to visit their family at the end of term if the country follows existing guidance.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also refused to rule out banning students from returning home for the festive period.

Labour has also called for guarantees from Mr Williamson that all students who are required to self-isolate will be able to access their education remotely and wants him to declare what mental health support will be put in place for those who have to stay indoors.

The party will also ask the Secretary of State “what his message is for parents and those students who have not yet moved to campus” given the current situation across the UK, along with what help will be provided to students’ unions to allow them to continue to provide pastoral support to students on and off campus.