Wales’ chief medical officer has said education unions persuaded the Welsh Government to reopen schools earlier than he had wanted.
Frank Atherton said his preferred option of pupils returning in August would have given the country “a little bit more time” to manage coronavirus transmissions, but for the education minister to give a restart date of June 29.
It came as Public Health Wales said a further eight people had died after testing positive for coronavirus, taking the total number of deaths to 1,379, while the number of people who tested positive grew by 35 to 14,238.
On Thursday, Dr Atherton revealed he had wanted the school return date put back by more than a month after being asked at the Welsh Government’s daily press briefing if the plan to reopen classrooms could lead to a surge in cases of Covid-19.
We've got a second-best option which is that we're going to reopen the schools towards the end of June for a short period of time with very different arrangements so that can be done safelyFrank Atherton, Wales' chief medical officer
He said: “I think we’ve been very clear throughout the last few weeks that anything which leads to increased social mixing will necessarily lead to some increase in the transmission of the virus.
“The ambition here is to make sure that the virus doesn’t resurge in a way where the R number actually goes above one and the virus starts to exponentially grow.
“The timing of school openings is one issue. When I was discussing this with the education minister, my preferred option would have been to reopen the schools perhaps towards the end of the summer in August, to give us a little bit more time.
“I understand that was not attractive to the unions, and so we’ve got a second-best option which is that we’re going to reopen the schools towards the end of June for a short period of time with very different arrangements so that can be done safely.”
Dr Atherton said he believed the reopening of schools can be done safely, but that there would be a need to “monitor and track” the effect it has on managing the pandemic.
Former leader of the Senedd’s Welsh Conservative group, Andrew RT Davies, said the revelation showed “unions call the shots in Wales”, despite education minister Kirsty Williams being a Liberal Democrat, having joined the Cabinet to give Welsh Labour a working majority following the 2016 election.
Mr Davies posted on Twitter: “So now we know. The unions call the shots in Wales. Not Welsh government, not the chief medical officer. But Labour’s paymasters – the unions.”
Several education unions criticised the plan to reopen all schools on June 29, with teachers union NASUWT describing it as “troubling” and accused the Government of “risking lives”.
Others such as the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru said they supported the plan, calling it a “sensible approach”.
Responding to questions later in the briefing about his and other expert advisers’ working relationship with the Welsh Government, Dr Atherton said ministers “always listen to my advice”.
He added: “Advice from me is always advice, and there are other considerations which politicians need to take into account.
“I can’t remember any significant disagreements. But I’m in that position providing advice and ministers do listen to it, and I think they value the advice I give them, from our chief science officer for health, Rob Orford, and our chief economic adviser, because all these factors need to play in.”