In a fiery first PMQs of the new term, Boris Johnson said this to Keir Starmer today:
“What I think the people of this country would appreciate is the Right Hon. and Learned Gentleman and I … uniting and saying that it is safe for kids to get back to school. I must say that we still have not heard those words from him. Will he now say, ‘School is safe’?”
When the Labour leader replied “I have said it so many times. School is safe. My own children have been in school throughout. There is no issue on this”, the Prime Minister responded:
“…that is the first time in four months that he has said it, so I am delighted to have extracted it from him over this despatch box. He has never said it to me in the House of Commons.”
So who’s right?
What has Starmer said?
There’s been a to-and-fro between the government and the opposition for months about this issue. It’s fair to say that in early summer, the Labour leader did not seem to be fully on board with the idea of large numbers of children returning to school just yet.
In a similar exchange to today’s, the Prime Minister asked Sir Keir on 10 June: “I think the message that teachers want to hear across the country is that all parliamentarians in this House of Commons support the return of kids to school and, furthermore, that they are encouraging kids to come back to school because it is safe. Will he now say that?”
Sir Keir replied: “I want as many children to go back to school as possible, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible—when it is safe. I have been saying that like a broken record for weeks on end.”
By the end of that month, the language from the Labour leader was more full-throated.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 23 June, Sir Keir told Mr Johnson: “On schools, I do think that it is safe for some children to return. I completely support that; the question is how quickly we can get all children back to school safely, the sooner the better.”
He continued: “It was the Education Secretary who told the House on 9 June that it would not be possible to bring all children back to school before the summer. One of the reasons we support today’s announcement is that it will make it more possible, and easier, to get children back to school more quickly. We will support that, and my offer to work with the Prime Minister on that stands.”
On 29 June, the Labour leader told BBC Radio 4: “Well of course it’s safe for some children to be back in school and they are back in school, and they’ve been in school throughout the pandemic.”
He added: “Even the Prime Minister isn’t saying all children could be back in school today because he hasn’t made the plan for that.”
In a radio interview on 6 July in which Boris Johnson had phoned in to ask him about his stance on schools, Sir Keir said to the Prime Minister: “Schools are safe for some children to go back to at the moment […] and I want all children back in school in September”.
Is Johnson right?
Mr Johnson’s initial allegation was that “we still have not heard” that “school is safe” from Sir Keir. He then claimed that the Labour leader’s reply was “the first time in four months that he’s said it”.
If you watch the exchange, you’ll hear some consternation from the opposition benches, which may be what prompts the Prime Minister to add: “he’s never said it to me in the House of Commons”, allowing for the possibility that Sir Keir made statements to that effect elsewhere.
Yet even that concession doesn’t help the Prime Minister very much. As we’ve seen, Keir Starmer had said that school was safe prior to today’s PMQs – including in a previous exchange in the House of Commons with Mr Johnson.
Mr Johnson might have been better served by pointing out that when Sir Keir has said “school is safe” in the past, it’s come with the caveat that it only applied to “some” pupils, in his view.
But even then, when the Labour leader was making those statements in late June and early July, that was the government’s position too.
Government guidance from 16 June describes how some year groups were being invited back to school at that time, and that more children would only return “When the most up-to-date assessment of the risk posed by the virus indicates that it is appropriate to do so”. In other words, that it was not yet safe to get every child back in the classroom.
On 2 July, the government published guidelines on how schools should prepare to welcome all children back. But crucially, that plan was for the autumn, not straight away.
Boris Johnson claimed that Keir Starmer’s assertion today that “school is safe” was “the first time in four months that he’s said it” and that “he’s never said it to me in the House of Commons”.
But in June, the Labour leader said to Mr Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions: “On schools, I do think that it is safe for some children to return.” And he made near-identical claims publicly in June and July.
From what we’ve seen, Sir Keir’s previous statements have come with the caveat that it was only safe for “some” pupils to be in school. However, at the time he was making those statements, that was the government’s position too.