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Head warns Cummings row ‘puts Norfolk at risk’ as schools set to reopen

PUBLISHED: 09:59 27 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:33 27 May 2020

Binks Neate-Evans, executive principal at primary schools in Norwich. Picture: Archant Library

Binks Neate-Evans, executive principal at primary schools in Norwich. Picture: Archant Library

Archant

A Norwich headteacher has warned that the prime minister’s “defending of the indefensible” over advisor Dominic Cummings’ actions is set to make school re-openings even more difficult.

Clive Lewis, the Labour MP for Norwich South, called for Mr Cummings to be sacked. Photo: Neil DidsburyClive Lewis, the Labour MP for Norwich South, called for Mr Cummings to be sacked. Photo: Neil Didsbury

Binks Neate-Evans hit out at the row which emerged this weekend over the controversial No 10 aide’s travel from London to Durham during the height of lockdown.

And the executive head of Angel Road Infant and Junior School and Bignold Primary School, said Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis had heightened her fears over the “shoddy and badly timed guidance” of school re-openings.

In a letter to Norwich MPs Clive Lewis, Jerome Mayhew, and Chloe Smith, Mrs Neate-Evans said: “It now appears that the prime minister has defended what were clearly blatant manipulations of the truth regarding his senior advisor’s travel arrangements.”

She added: “Many people in your constituencies are angry and feel wholly let down that there are one set of rules for the public and another for the inner sanctum. I already feel incredibly concerned about the re-opening of schools and the shoddy and badly timed guidance. My worries and that of my staff are escalated because we know the impact the debacle will have on sticking to lockdown.”

Chloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North. Picture: Neil DidsburyChloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North. Picture: Neil Didsbury

READ MORE: MP changes view and says Dominic Cummings should resign after flood of angry emails

And the headteacher said she had reminded school staff of the importance of following the guidelines, as “not doing so would undermine trust in us”.

She added: “The actions of Boris Johnson defending the indefensible has completely undermined this message. In doing so he has put places like Norfolk, with a relatively low death rate at far higher risk.”

Mr Lewis, Norwich South Labour MP, said: “Teaching unions and headteachers are really concerned. SAGE have come out and said if you put schools re-opening back by two weeks, you halve deaths.”

Commenting on Mr Cummings actions, he added: “I think he should be fired. It’s quite clear he is not going to resign and he has no intention of resigning.

READ MORE: Dominic Cummings ‘undermined’ government’s Stay At Home message, says Norfolk Conservative MP

“We already had problems with lockdown. If there’s a second spike, how can they then say ‘right, this is an even tougher lockdown’.

“This is a very, very bad decision. We seem to be in a kind of ‘Trump Britain’.”

Norwich North MP Ms Smith (Cons) said: “I am hugely grateful to everyone in Norwich, including Mrs Neate-Evans, who have done their bit to get us through the worst of the pandemic. A lot of people have worked incredibly hard, and made many sacrifices, during the coronavirus lockdown. As an MP, I will always represent my constituents’ views to Westminster.”

The MP said she would respect the prime minister’s decision to back Mr Cummings.

In a response to Mrs Neate-Evans’ email, Mr Mayhew, MP for Broadland, thanked her for her work to keep schools open for key workers children.

He said: “All government guidance has to be interpreted to apply it to the myriad individual situations that people find themselves in.

“But this does not mean that there is one set of rules for the public and another for the inner sanctum at No 10 Downing Street.

“The guidance applies to all of us and should be followed by all of us. From a strict legal sense the prime minister has gone through the detail for several hours with Mr Cummings and concluded that the rules were not broken.”

Mr Mayhew, who is Mrs Neate-Evans’ local MP, highlighted “an express and specific exception” regarding the care of children in exceptional circumstances.

But critics say the exception was written to allow adults and children at risk of domestic abuse to leave their home if they were in damger - and accuse supporters of Mr Cummings’ of attempting to exploit this loophole.

The MP added: “For my part, whilst I accept the explanation for the move to Durham, I find it hard to understand the rationale for the later drive to Barnard Castle.”

He also claimed a “media campaign” was attempting to connect Mr Cummings actions with widespread disregard of the government’s guidance” and said: “I have seen no evidence of a widespread change in public attitudes. Pushing the line that we all now have a reason to disregard the guidance, would be untruthful and irresponsible.”

READ MORE: Dominic Cummings statement: ‘I behaved legally and reasonably’ in driving to Durham

‘Is lockdown over?’ - A headteacher’s letter:

Dear Jerome, Chloe and Clive,

I am a resident in Reepham and an executive principal of three Norwich schools. Because of the government guidelines, my public role and a moral drive to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, I and my family have stuck to the lockdown guidance. I have publicly encouraged the three communities my schools serve to do this. I have routinely communicated this to the hard working and dedicated staff who have supported the NHS by providing essential childcare for keyworkers throughout this crisis.

It now appears that the prime minister tells us we can interpret the guidance and has defended what clearly were blatant manipulations of the truth regarding his senior advisors travel arrangements. Many people in your constituency are angry and feel wholly let down that there are one set of rules for the public and another for the inner sanctum at No 10 Downing Street. What messages do you think this portrays about the public health message? In short, the handling of this ill-timed and ill-judged (I’m being overly generous here) episode communicates that lockdown is informally over.

I already feel incredibly concerned about the re-opening of schools and the way this has been managed with shoddy and badly timed guidance. My worries and that of my staff are escalated because we know the impact of the Dominic Cummings debacle will have on sticking to lockdown.

Dominic Cummings is not a politician and is a special advisor and therefore should not be making public announcements. Furthermore, the content of his account was nothing short of farcical. Is it appropriate to ‘test your eyesight’ by driving to local tourist attraction with your son and wife in the car? It was inappropriate at this stage of the campaign to imply that all parents could have interpreted the guidelines when at no time has there been any message other than ‘stay at home’.

As a leader of schools in Norwich, it is my responsibility to guide and support school staff. Our schools stayed open over the entire Easter holiday. May half term was our first break. My teams have been superb in supporting our communities. In my staff update prior to half-term I reminded my team about the importance as public servants, of following the guidelines and adhering to social distancing because of the need to protect our community and of course because of public perception. Not doing so would undermine the communities trust in us. The actions of Boris Johnson defending the indefensible has completely undermined this message. In doing so he has put places like Norfolk, with a relatively low death rate at far higher risk.

I will be sending this email to the MPs of my schools and would like to know as Norfolk MPs how you will be addressing this issue so people in our county know it’s MPs act in the best interest of their communities and are driven by moral not political motives.

Binks Neate-Evans, executive headteacher of Angel Road Infant and Junior School and Bignold Primary School.


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