UK coronavirus live: Sunak extends furlough until end of March; R-value in Scotland 'hovers' around 1

By Andrew Sparrow


Gavin Williamson angers National Education Union by claiming it does not put pupils' interests first

The UK’s largest education union has reacted with fury after education secretary Gavin Williamson accused its leaders of failing to put the education of children first by calling for schools to close during lockdown.

As schools in England opened for the first day of the new restrictions, Williamson wrote a column in the Telegraph, accusing the National Education Union (NEU) of putting pupils’ progress in jeopardy.

The NEU has been campaigning for schools and colleges to be included in the national lockdown in England amid evidence of a 50-fold increase in Covid infections in secondary schools since September.

Williamson accused the NEU leadership of being content to put children’s progress on hold. He said:

When the risks are being managed, when the benefits of being in school are so clear, this seems to be an isolated position that doesn’t put the best interests of pupils first.

Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said teachers had responded with “incredulity” to Williamson’s claim in the column that when it comes to children “there really is nothing we wouldn’t do to make sure they get the education they deserve”. She cited his failure on free school meals, laptops and additional funding for Covid safety measures in schools. She said:

What we see, time and time again from Gavin Williamson is poor propaganda unmatched by the decisive action that is needed to support pupils’ continuing access to education.

Far from there being nothing he wouldn’t do, the reality is that he is doing very little to keep schools open safely and to support children and young people with practical ways so that they can keep learning during this pandemic.


The Welsh economy minister, Ken Skates, has said businesses in Wales will have a “captive market” when they re-open on Monday following a 17-day “firebreak” lockdown.

Skates said the four-week English lockdown for non-essential shops would give Welsh businesses an advantage.

Speaking at the Welsh government’s press conference, Skates said:

Those [Welsh] businesses will have a very captive audience. People in Wales will not be able to access non-essential retail across the border in Chester or Oswestry.

Hospitality businesses, non-essential retail in Wales will have a captive market and that is something they surely will be able to celebrate for four weeks during which their equivalents in England are in lockdown.

However, Skates said co-ordinated lockdowns across the UK would have been desirable. “We were pushing for a concerted UK wide programme of restrictions but we couldn’t wait on the UK government any longer.”

He said that if further restrictions were needed in the future, the Welsh government would prefer a four nations approach. He said he thought a UK-wide approach would be agreed.


R number in Scotland 'hovering around 1', says Sturgeon

At first minister’s questions, which began as Rishi Sunak was making his furlough statement, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed a further 1,216 new cases of coronavirus in Scotland and 39 deaths, adding that the latest estimate of the country’s R number was likely to show it “hovering around 1”.

She said this was thanks to tough measures taken earlier in the autumn, as well as public compliance starting to have an effect on the infection rate.

Noting that the new English lockdown measures begin today, Sturgeon repeated that she “can’t rule out a full lockdown” in Scotland “but right now we are in a better position”. She also cautioned that next week’s review of Scotland’s five-level system of Covid control would be “taking a very cautious and precautionary stance”.

Because the furlough statement was happening simultaneously, it was only raised briefly by the Scottish Greens’ health spokesperson, Alison Johnstone.

Sturgeon said she hadn’t seen the detail of the UK chancellor’s statement yet, but that the “acid test” for it would be whether somebody on 80% furlough now, regardless of whether they live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, will continue to be on 80% once England comes out of full lockdown.

Sturgeon said it was “deeply regrettable” that businesses had made people redundant or gone into liquidation because they expected the scheme to end at the end of October. “We should have had the ongoing reassurance of furlough at 80% all along.”

Nicola Sturgeon at first minister’s questions

Nicola Sturgeon at first minister’s questions. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters





Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was quick to claim his part in the U-turn, after Rishi Sunak confirmed that the furlough extension would be available to devolved nations, describing this as “a demonstration of the strength of the union”.

Ross said:

Scottish Conservative pressure has delivered. All week, we’ve made the case that Scottish jobs had to be protected at all costs. We’ve worked constructively with the UK government and pushed them for answers where necessary.

Ross praised Sunak, saying he had “blown the SNP’s grievances out of the water with an extra billion pounds for Scotland, and shown again that the UK government will do whatever it takes to support jobs throughout this pandemic.”



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