An Education Minister was under fire last night for enjoying a holiday in the French Alps while teenagers in Britain went ‘through hell’ over their exam grades.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that as students worried over their futures, Gillian Keegan enjoyed hiking trips, mountain biking and dips in a mountain lake – and boasted about them on Instagram.
Astonishingly, beleaguered Education Secretary Gavin Williamson found time to ‘like’ several of her posts.
Mrs Keegan is Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills at the Department for Education and, crucially, is jointly responsible for post-16 education strategy.
But as the exam fiasco reached its climax, she decided to remain in France – even as quarantine restrictions came into effect that would require her to self-isolate for 14 days on her eventual return to the UK.
On August 15, two days after the A-level results in England were released, she wrote on social media: ‘We will have to make the most of it [our holiday] as we will be #quarantined for 14 days when we get back’. The post was accompanied by an emoji of a woman shrugging.
In other coronavirus developments in Britain:
- Gavin Williamson took a seaside break in Scarborough for a week and arrived just days before the A-levels fiasco which has rocked his position;
- A former chief scientific adviser warned that coronavirus will be present ‘forever’ and people are likely to need regular vaccinations against it;
- Six million furloughed people broke the rules by doing their jobs from home during lockdown despite the ban on work, a major new report has found;
- Britain’s Chief Medical Officers have unanimously told parents their children can return to classrooms next month as they face a ‘small risk’ from Covid-19;
- Scotland’s 73 per cent spike in new coronavirus cases drives the UK to its highest Saturday total for eight weeks, with 1,288 infections;
- Andy Burnham has said the coronavirus restrictions in Greater Manchester are working and driving down case numbers of cases.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that as students worried over their futures, Gillian Keegan enjoyed hiking trips, mountain biking and dips in a mountain lake – and boasted about them on Instagram. This picture was posted on A-level results day
Despite posting a new message and picture yesterday announcing that she was ‘back to Blighty’, Mrs Keegan did not respond to this newspaper’s requests for comment about her getaway.
However, she now faces the prospect of being unable to attend the Commons in person when it resumes on September 1 because she may still be in quarantine.
Mr Williamson also declined to comment, with sources saying it was not policy ‘to comment on Ministerial diaries’.
Supporters sprang to Mrs Keegan’s defence, saying she had not hidden the fact she was away and that fellow Minister Michelle Donelan, who shares duties for post-16 education strategy, had been on duty. They stressed that Mrs Keegan, a self-professed ‘proud Scouser’ who is MP for Chichester, had done some work while she was away.
‘She wasn’t just sitting with her feet up all the time,’ one said.
But Labour last night described her conduct as ‘beyond belief – even for this gaffe-prone Government’.
Rural chalet in the French Alps where Mrs Keegan spent her holiday. Mrs Keegan is Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills at the Department for Education and, crucially, is jointly responsible for post-16 education strategy
Labour MP Neil Coyle said: ‘Gavin Williamson’s incompetence truly knows no bounds. Young people who have been put through hell over the last few weeks will be disgusted to learn that one of the Ministers involved in this mess has been living it up on holiday in France.
‘But instead of Mr Williamson recognising he needed all hands on deck as this exam disaster loomed, he not only let her swan off on holiday, he even liked her holiday snaps.’
Mr Williamson’s response to the exam crisis has been met with a mixture of ridicule and anger as thousands of teenagers were left devastated when their predicted grades were downgraded, jeopardising their university places, before Ministers were forced into a humiliating U-turn.
Boris Johnson is understood to have rejected Mr Williamson’s offer to resign but the Education Secretary’s decision to allow one of his junior Ministers to be on holiday as crisis deepened raised fresh questions over his judgment.
Mrs Keegan, 52, announced on Instagram on August 6 that she was staying in Courchevel, an Alpine resort popular with the rich and famous. Posting a series of photographs over the following days, she spoke of ‘good vibes’ and even celebrated her rest and relaxation on the very day that A-level results were released.
Mr Williamson’s response to the exam crisis has been met with a mixture of ridicule and anger as thousands of teenagers were left devastated when their predicted grades were downgraded, jeopardising their university places, before Ministers were forced into a humiliating U-turn. Students are pictured on a march to the Department of Education on Saturday
Mr Williamson ‘liked’ several of her posts including one on August 6 captioned: ‘Made it to our happy place for a few days #hiking #biking #wildswimming and whatever adventures we can find to clear the mind.’ But back home, the media was warning of an impending schools crisis following the earlier fiasco over exam grades in Scotland.
Mr Williamson also approved of Mrs Keegan’s post the following day from the 7,500 ft Col de la Loze mountain pass.
As the UK became awash with dire reports that schools were bringing in lawyers to stop results being dramatically reduced, Mrs Keegan posted a picture of a dip in a lake at Le Praz. It was captioned: ‘Another wonderful day.’
Two days later, beside a picture of sun-kissed mountain, she wrote: ‘Wonderful view from our balcony… #goodvibes.’
On August 11, just 48 hours before the A-level crisis peaked, she was enjoying ‘another wonderful day #hiking in the mountains’. Again, Mr Williamson found time to ‘like’ the photograph.
Finally, as A-level results day arrived in England on August 13, Mrs Keegan’s horizon did darken but only because of news that British holidaymakers in France would shortly face two weeks of quarantine when they returned to the UK because of soaring French infection rates. Her post contained an eye-rolling emoji to indicate her frustration, but her photograph depicted smiles and sunglasses
Mrs Keegan decided not to try to get back before the quarantine deadline, apparently with Mr Williamson’s blessing. On August 15, he ‘liked’ her message from the Alps where, with glass in hand, she declared: ‘We will have to make the most of it as we will be #quarantined for 14 days when we get back.’
The Mail on Sunday reported the next day how one distraught A-level student told Schools Minister Nick Gibb: ‘You’ve ruined my life.’ But Mrs Keegan simply acknowledged that she would have to quarantine on her return with her husband, writing: ‘Good job we like each other’ – another message liked by Mr Williamson
Finally, on Tuesday last week, amid mounting expectation that her boss would now lose his job, the Skills Minister posted about her pizza in Courchevel. Some may now be recommending humble pie.
Another wonderful day in the Alps, shame about the disaster at home
Gavin Williamson took a seaside break in Scarborough for a week – and arrived just DAYS before A-levels chaos as his handling of the exams fiasco comes under new pressure
By Glen Owen for the Mail on Sunday
Gavin Williamson last night faced fresh pressure over his handling of the A-levels crisis after it emerged he took a seaside holiday in the run-up to the fiasco.
The Mail on Sunday understands the Education Secretary took a break in Scarborough for a week from August 2, returning just days before the A-level results came out on August 13.
An algorithm used by the exams regulator Ofqual resulted in an astonishing 40 per cent of grades being downgraded from teachers’ predictions, meaning thousands of devastated students were turned down by their first-choice universities.
It is also understood that Mr Williamson cancelled a key meeting while he was in North Yorkshire.
Gavin Williamson last night faced fresh pressure over his handling of the A-levels crisis after it emerged he took a seaside holiday in the run-up to the fiasco
Mr Williamson is fighting to keep his place in the Cabinet after initially insisting the algorithm was ‘robust’, and there would be ‘no U-turn, no changes’ – before performing a humiliating U-turn in the face of growing protests from students.
Sir Jon Coles, a former director-general for schools at the Department for Education, added to the pressure by saying he warned Mr Williamson directly in early July that the algorithm could give hundreds of thousands of students inaccurate results. Last night, a spokesman for Mr Williamson said the trip to Scarborough did not count as a holiday because he was ‘working every day’.
The spokesman said: ‘It was the only chance for him to go to see his mum and dad, who he had not been able to visit during lockdown. It wasn’t a holiday as he was working every day and continuing to hold meetings remotely.
‘In addition, he cancelled a foreign holiday to ensure that he could be in the country when the results came out.’
The revelation came as protesters gathered outside the Department For Education yesterday, chanting ‘Get Gav Gone’ and ‘We are the future’. Protest organiser Glen Morgan-Shaw said: ‘We are going to call them out on the fact they are doing everything to protect themselves when they should be protecting the people.’
Following the U-turn, the Government has asked universities to prioritise students from disadvantaged backgrounds for admission ‘where possible’. Downing Street sources say they are not going to give into calls for Mr Williamson’s sacking because they ‘back their people’. Mr Williamson played a key role in the campaign to elect Mr Johnson as Tory leader.
It IS safe to go back to school: UK’s Chief Medical Officers unanimously tell parents their children can return to classrooms next month as they face an ‘exceptionally small risk’ from coronavirus
By Glen Owen, Political Editor for the Mail on Sunday and Emer Scully for MailOnline
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said failure to reopen schools next month is not an option – as the UK’s Chief Medical Officers tell parents their children face an ‘exceptionally small risk’ from Covid-19 in the classroom.
The highly unusual ‘consensus statement’ from the country’s most senior experts removes the final hurdle to the resumption of full-time teaching in September – to the relief of parents who have been forced to home-school the majority of children since March.
Meanwhile, a Whitehall source told The Daily Telegraph Downing Street has made clear there can be ‘no ifs, no buts’ in delivering on the national priority.
‘Schools not coming back is not an option,’ they added. ‘Failure is not an option.’
All 12 Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers agree that ‘very few, if any, teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid-19 due solely to attending school’.
And they say that small risk has to be offset against ‘a certainty of long-term harm to many children from not attending school’.
The experts also conclude that ‘teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19’ compared to other workers, and say that the evidence from other countries is that reopening schools is not linked to a surge in cases.
Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School on July 16, 2020 in Hyde, England
Their reassuring statement comes after Boris Johnson issued a rallying cry in The Mail on Sunday a fortnight ago, telling union leaders trying to block the reopening of schools that the country had a ‘moral duty’ to resume lessons.
And last week Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer argued – also in this newspaper – that Mr Johnson had a ‘moral responsibility’ to carry out his promise.
The intervention of the medical experts came as:
- Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the Minister responsible for getting schools to reopen, faced new criticism over his handling of the A-level results fiasco as it was revealed he took a holiday just days before the crisis unfolded;
- The Government said that 41,423 people had died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 by yesterday, an increase of 18 on the day before;
- Town hall chiefs in the North West claimed they were being ‘punished’ with draconian new lockdown restrictions for having good testing regimes;
- Sources said senior figures across Government were being briefed to prepare for a second UK-wide lockdown in November in a ‘worst-case scenario’ if infection rates continue to rise;
- Former Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport warned that coronavirus will be present ‘forever’, not eradicated like smallpox, and people are likely to need regular vaccinations against it, as they do for flu;
- The US government’s leading health research body raised major concerns about a secretive Chinese laboratory suspected to be the source of the pandemic, and demanded answers about the ‘apparent disappearance’ of a scientist there who is considered to be ‘Patient Zero’;
- Britons scrambled to get back from Croatia, Austria and Trinidad and Tobago before new quarantine restrictions came into force, while others raced to book bank holiday breaks in Portugal after it was ‘green-listed’ as safe.
In their statement, the Medical Officers brush aside teaching unions’ safety fears by declaring that ‘there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19’.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured), the Minister responsible for getting schools to reopen, faced new criticism over his handling of the A-level results fiasco as it was revealed he took a holiday just days before the crisis unfolded
They said the fatality rate for children aged five to 15 who become infected was just 14 in a million, ‘lower than for most seasonal flu infections’, and while every death of a child is a tragedy, ‘almost all deaths [from Covid] are in children with significant pre-existing health conditions’.
The experts report that just one in a thousand children under nine who show Covid symptoms would need hospital treatment, a figure that rises to three in a thousand for ten-to-19-year-olds.
That is still an order of magnitude lower than the four per cent rate for the general population, and the experts add: ‘Most of these children make a rapid recovery.’
Set against this tiny risk, the scientists say: ‘We are confident that multiple sources of evidence show that a lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.’
Pupils arrive at Kelso High School on August 11 on the Scottish Borders as schools in Scotland started reopening amid concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic
Although the officers accept that ‘transmission of Covid-19 to staff members in school does occur’, they believe it to be largely ‘staff to staff’, which can be limited through ‘social distancing and good infection control’.
They attempted to reassure staff by saying that the data points to teaching being a ‘lower risk profession’.
The experts concede that the connections between households forged by schools returning, such as contact at the school gates or more people using public transport, ‘will put some upward pressure on transmission’ but said that ‘other work and social environments… are likely to be more important’.
We are confident that multiple sources of evidence show that a lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues
However, their remarks came as coronavirus cases were reported in at least 41 schools in Berlin, two weeks after the city’s 825 schools reopened.
Last night, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the ‘incredibly small’ health risks should be balanced against the overwhelming evidence ‘that not going to school damages children in the long run and that includes their long-term chances.
‘It increases the risks of disparities, it entrenches deep-rooted problems, it increases the risk that they have mental and physical ill health in the long run.’
He added the transmission rates across the UK were broadly flat and said: ‘The evidence from other parts of the world is that, when schools have opened, this has not led to a sudden surge in transmission that looks as if it’s due to the schools opening.
Mr Whitty – who signed the statement with his colleagues from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and their total of eight deputies after considering a wide range of experts and research – also noted that there might have to be ‘other restrictions’ in local lockdowns in order to keep schools open.
He said: ‘We have to make really quite difficult choices. There are no easy choices in confronting coronavirus.’
Dr Patrick Roach of the NASUWT teachers’ union said: ‘The Chief Medical Officers’ statement has reinforced the critical importance of risk control measures. ‘Governments across the UK must take steps to ensure that there are effective systems in place to monitor schools’ practices and to provide ongoing reassurance on safety after schools reopen.’