'One of the worst in years': Gavin Williamson stumbles through disastrous back-to-back interviews

Gavin Williamson. (BBC)
Gavin Williamson during one of his broadcast interviews on Thursday morning. (BBC)

As pupils begin returning to school, parents who were tuned in to Thursday morning's breakfast shows may have been hoping for words of clarity from Gavin Williamson.

Following the coronavirus fiasco ahead of the summer holidays which saw hundreds of thousands of pupils taken out of classrooms, the perpetually under-fire education secretary is under pressure to oversee a smooth return to schools.

But the way he presented it was anything but smooth.

Williamson stumbled through a series of disastrous interviews as he toured the TV and radio stations.

His ordeal was captured in an excruciating exchange with BBC Radio 4 Today presenter Nick Robinson, who tried to make sense of Department for Education guidance, issued last month, that schools should consider outdoor lessons if five pupils who are likely to have mixed closely test positive for COVID.

Asked four times if he supported the advice, Williamson four times refused to answer.

Here is a selection of Williamson’s squirming responses to the first three questions about outdoor lessons…

  • “There will be situations where further actions need to be taken…”

  • “What it could include, it could include the re-introduction of mask-wearing, it could include the moving to separating children from different year groups so there’s less mixing, it could also include the re-installation of asymptomatic testing centres.”

  • “What we believe is there’s a whole set of measures that can actually be introduced using common sense, being able to use resources of the school, in order to be able to ensure children are continuing to be at school, in the classroom, benefitting from that education.”

The closest Williamson got to confirming support for outdoor lessons was when Robinson asked a fourth time.

He said: “It is certainly not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of, especially in sort of autumn and winter.”

Watch: Williamson's hopes for minimal disruption as pupils return to school

Williamson then refused to answer Robinson’s repeated questions about how many schools have got C02 monitors to ensure the ventilation of classrooms.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Williamson’s Today appearance was “possibly one of the worst interviews by a government minister in recent years”.

McDonnell, who was a key part of the Jeremy Corbyn frontbench which in 2019 led Labour to its worst general election defeat since the 1930s, added: “Each day evidences we have a cabinet of dangerously incompetent clowns.”

Read more:

The story behind that Gavin Williamson whip picture (from December 2020)

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Wes Streeting, a current member of the Labour frontbench, referred to a Today segment about ABBA which immediately followed Williamson’s interview as he quipped: “No wonder ABBA’s SOS played immediately afterwards.”

Williamson's troubles didn't end there.

In a separate BBC Breakfast interview in which he was quizzed about carbon dioxide monitors, he was asked if schools with classrooms with poor ventilation have got the monitors yet. Williamson would only say: "They are being rolled out during this term."

Times Radio presenter Stig Abell also shared his apparent frustration at Williamson following his interview. Abell tweeted: "I asked Gavin Williamson twice on @TimesRadio are schools now better ventilated and so safer in 2021 than they were last year? He twice talked about vaccination of adults."

Watch: Thursday's politics briefing