The education secretary has ordered the London Borough of Greenwich to withdraw a letter to headteachers asking schools to switch to remote learning from Monday evening in response to rising coronavirus rates.
New powers introduced through the Coronavirus Act allow the government to issue “directions” to heads around education provision during the pandemic.
The leader of Greenwich borough has insisted, however, that schools will remain closed on Tuesday and that they were seeking legal advice.
In a statement, Gavin Williamson said: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors.”
He added: “I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority. That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich Council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.
“The Regional Schools Commissioner will continue to work closely with Greenwich Council and schools in the borough, as we have done with schools across the country, to support them with any operational challenges they face and ensure children can continue to receive face-to-face education.”
Watch: Matt Hancock outlines which areas are heading into Tier 3
The direction states it is enforceable by the secretary of state making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction.
Greenwich borough leader, Cllr Danny Thorpe, insisted that schools would remain closed - on Tuesday at least: “Schools across the borough have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils.
“We have alerted schools, and will speak to them tomorrow. But given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.”
Council leaders in Waltham Forest, Islington and Greenwich had all previously advised schools to shut to the majority of pupils and move to online learning amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Downing Street has said it expects schools and colleges in England to remain open until the end of term on Thursday.
Parts of the south-east plunged into Tier 3
The development came shortly after a Downing Street press conference at which Matt Hancock announced London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will face Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday following “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases.
The health secretary also said a new coronavirus variant was spreading rapidly through southern England.
Hancock said the spread of the virus was “not good” and that the newly-identified variant may be associated with the rise in the south-east.
The announcement moves almost 10.8 million people into Tier 3, with 61% of England’s population under the toughest restrictions from Wednesday.
Hancock acknowledged that the measures would be a “blow” to people and businesses, but said: “We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action.”
Watch: Chris Whitty on what we know about new coronavirus variant
He added: “This rise in transmission, as well as this new variant of COVID should be a warning to us all that even after such a difficult year, we must stay vigilant.”
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the decision to move London and parts of the south- east of England into Tier 3 was not a result of the new variant.
“The reason Tier 3 is brought in is because the rates are going up very fast in many areas,” he told the press conference.
“The variant may or may not be contributing to that but the reality of that is that it is happening across the board, and that’s the reason for making the changes.”