Gavin Williamson accused teachers who complained about a lack of PPE in schools of ‘having an excuse not to teach’ at the height of Covid pandemic in 2020, adding that certain teaching unions “really do just hate work”.
In a leaked WhatsApp conversation as published by The Telegraph, the then education secretary asked Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, to help unblock school requests for protective equipment if a child became ill as classrooms prepared to reopen after the first lockdown.
Williamson said: “(It was) basically as a last resort so they can’t use it as a reason not to open. All of them will but some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”
Teaching unions, such as the National Education Union, were extremely critical of the government’s approach to schools reopening and exams, which included a debacle involving A-level results predicted by an algorithm.
Williamson announced in October 2020 that the following year’s exams would be delayed for a few weeks to make up for lost teaching time. According to the leaked messages, Hancock subsequently contacted his cabinet colleague and remarked, "What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are".
Williamson replied: “I know they really really do just hate work.” Hancock then responded with a laughing emoji and a bullseye.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told the Guardian in response to the leak: “Why am I utterly unsurprised to now have it absolutely confirmed that Gavin Williamson was unfit to be secretary of state for education?”
In a statement on Wednesday (March 1), Williamson said: “Further to reports in the Telegraph and other outlets, I wish to clarify that these messages were about some unions and not teachers. As demonstrated in the exchange, I was responding regarding unions.
“I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students. During the pandemic, teachers went above and beyond during very challenging times and very much continue to do so.”
The leaked WhatsApp messages were part of The Telegraph’s investigation into Hancock’s handling of the Covid pandemic. The investigation by the daily alleges the former health secretary rejected testing advice on care homes and expressed concern this could get in the way of meeting his targets, among other things.
In response to the leaked Whatsapp exchange, a spokesperson for Hancock said the revelations were “partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda”, adding: “They show Matt was focused throughout on saving lives. The right place for a full assessment is the (official Covid) inquiry.”