COVID-19: Daily update from Grayling PR

19th March 2020, 8:28 am

Guest blog by Grayling PR (review of 18th March) 

Schools in England will be closed to all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable children from Friday until further notice. The PM has asked independent schools and nurseries to do the same.  

  • This follows the earlier announcement that the Welsh and Scottish Governments had chosen to close schools from the end of this week.
  • Northern Ireland took the decision to close schools as of 17:00 GMT today.
  • PM reiterated that everyone should follow the “strong, strong advice” as set out earlier in the week, whilst noting that the government was not ruling out taking “further and faster measures” as the crisis continues.
  • These new measures come as the number of cases of COVID-19 in the UK rises to 2,262, whilst 56,221 people have been tested for the virus.
  • The Government will be bringing forward the emergency Coronavirus Bill tomorrow.

Political Update 

UK Government  

In the UK, the number of positive coronavirus cases stands at 2,626, whilst 56,221 tests have been completed. 104 people across the UK have sadly died as a result of COVID-19.


Daily press conference

Comments by the Prime Minister: 

  • Schools across the UK will close from Friday 20th March and remain closed for the majority of pupils until further notice.
  • The Prime Minister began by repeating that it was important for all individuals to follow the government’s latest advice on coronavirus.
  • On the subject of school closures, the PM mentioned that closing schools was in part counter intuitive to stopping the spread of the virus, however admitted that “now was the time” to apply “downward pressure” on the upward curve of coronavirus cases.
  • However, the PM noted that it was important to ensure that the NHS has the staff needed to fight the virus, and as such schools will remain open for the children of key workers including NHS staff and police officers. The PM noted that “more details will be set out shortly on who is meant by key workers”. The PM stated that “schools will need to make provisions for key workers’ children” as parents will have to remain at work.
  • The government has also asked nurseries and private schools to follow the same guidance.
  • Schools have been asked to make provisions for those eligible for free school meals, with the government prepared to reimburse schools on the cost of these meals.
  • The PM added that exams will not be taking place in May or June this year, including GCSEs and A-Levels.
  • The PM reminded parents that children should not be left with older relatives who fall into the vulnerable categories, whilst also thanking families for their “sacrifice at a difficult time.”
  • The PM concluded that additional measures will be announced soon which will go “further and faster in the days and weeks ahead”.


Comments by Sir Patrick Vallance

  • The Chief Scientific Advisor noted that “the measures announced days ago are taking affect in terms of behaviour”, before stating it was imperative the government’s decisions ensures that “the NSH intensive care capacity must not be breached.”


Statement by the Education Secretary

  • Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made a statement in the House of Commons this evening with regards to changes to schools in light of coronavirus.
  • Williamson opened by addressing that the situation has become increasingly challenging and that we are “now at the stage” where it is no longer safe to keep schools open. He continued that the spike of the virus has increased faster than anticipated, and that it is important to relieve pressure on the health system. He recognised that the public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal have shifted and that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to operate as normal due to dropping staff levels and pupil attendance.
  • The Secretary announced that schools will close on Friday 20th March and remain closed until further notice. This includes all children except for the most vulnerable and those who are the children of key workers. This includes children of NHS staff, police and delivery drivers. Vulnerable children include those with a social worker and those with education health and care plans. Williamson affirmed that it is safe for these children to continue to attend school and that looking after these children will help the country to manage through this time.
  • Williamson continued that he expected further education colleges and boarding schools to also close.
  • The Department for Education are working with HM Treasury on the support required, and Williamson stated that he will give schools flexibility to provide free school meals through a voucher system.
  • He acknowledged that these were unprecedented asks and ensured that leaders will have the flexibility they need to face the challenge ahead. This includes removing various duties such as stopping inspections and cancelling assessments and exams. In light of this, performance tables will not be published for this academic year.
  • Williamson concluded that the wellbeing of children is the absolute priority, and that the Government remain committed to enabling children to receive the funding they need.


English Regions


Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) COVID-19 Committee

As of Tuesday evening (March 17), there were 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Greater Manchester. In response to the crisis, the Metro Mayor for Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham chaired the first meeting of a weekly GMCA COVID-19 Committee this afternoon. Joined by civic, health and business leaders, Mr Burnham spoke about the measures being taken in the city-region and at a local level to respond to the public health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus outbreak.  Mr Burnham made it clear that he, and the Committee, do not want to conflict with the advice from the Government, or play party politics by identifying shortfalls in the national strategy. Instead he wants the Committee to “amplify the lines of communication” from the Government to ensure that the public, vulnerable groups, and businesses know how to protect themselves.

Below are the key points to take from the press conference:

  • GMCA introduce online support system for businesses – 24 hotline to be added in due course.
  • Support system for communities – GMCA and local councils are currently building up a support system for communities who need additional food, care or medicine. Mr Burnham recognised that this was a “complex challenge” as the capacity of councils may not meet the demand for support in the weeks and months ahead.
  • The Fire Service will introduce a Safe and Well telephone service – It is hoped that this will ease the number of incoming calls made to councils from residents who need more support, and ensure their needs are met more quickly.
  • Community Support Website – Currently under development to mobilise volunteers and support residents who need more support. This resource will streamline volunteer recruitment across the region into one website so that different demands can be met.
  • Mr Burnham called on the Government to address the “serious” cash flow problem for councils – The Committee outlined that councils do not have the financial reserves following ten years of cuts to take on the new demands for tackling the virus or protecting businesses with cash incentives.  He added, that although he welcomed the Chancellor’s promise of has “further support” for councils, there has been little detail of what this will look like in his announcements.
  • Concerns raised over PPE for front line staff – The Committee is “to press very strongly” on the Govt over access to COVID-19 testing equipment and personal protective equipment for public sector workers, including social care staff and police officers. Without it, there is a fear that front line workers will be forced to self-isolate, leaving less staff available.
  • School closures – The Committee are pressing the Govt for an urgent decision but understand that they are on the verge of making one. The Committee backs the decision made in Scotland and Wales to close schools at end of week. Mr Burnham proposed a scaled back “skeleton” school service from next week to provide a safe place for children of essential public service staff, and for children who receive free school meals.
  • Public transport – Mr Burnham is considering scaling back the frequency of Metrolink trams and increasing the number of carriages on each journey to ensure social distancing measures are followed.
  • Call for Cobra meetings to include regional representatives.
  • GMCA will provide room provisions for homeless people needing to self-isolate.


Scottish Parliament


In Scotland, 227 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, an increase in 32 cases since yesterday.


First Minister’s Statement

  • £320m support for small/medium businesses and hospitality industry.
  • Following the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, the Scottish Government will announce a package of measures of £1.9bn (every penny of support from Treasury announcement being passed on).
  • Scottish Government will set out £350m package of welfare and wellbeing – providing economic and social help for people impacted either economically or by limited contact with society including council tax reductions and emergency funding for local authorities.


Comments by the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy:

  • The Scottish Government will pass on all consequential announcements from the Chancellor’s statement, with “every penny” going to support Scottish business and employers.
  • Replicating the UK Government’s package of measures announced yesterday “in full”, resulting in over £1.9bn to support Scottish businesses.
  • Freezing the poundage rate over the next financial year and committing £10,000 for businesses in small business rates relief and the rural business scheme.
  • Implementing a 12-month business tax relief for properties in retail, hospitality and leisure and grants of up to £25,000 for those sectors with a rateable value between £18,000 and £51,000.
  • Asking the UK Government to reduce cost pressures through tax holidays, PAYE breaks and the suspension of the Apprenticeship Levy.
  • Ensuring that Fair Work Convention principles remained at the heart of the Government’s response and that discussions with trade unions and the private, public and third sector remained ongoing.
  • The Chief Planner issuing guidance to local authorities to ease restrictions on pubs and restaurants becoming takeaways during the crisis.
  • Delaying the deposit return scheme from April 2021 to July 2022 and halting legislation relating to the Transient Visitor Levy.
  • Setting up an urgent meeting with insurance companies and FISAB, chaired by the First Minister, in order how to assess how banks could best support individuals through the outbreak.
  • Writing to local authorities to secure rates deferrals until next year and ensuring that all those made redundant during the crisis were supported by the PACE programme.


Comments by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Communities

  • £350million in funding to be split between local authorities and third sector organisations
  • Extending hardship funds, expanding council tax reductions, accounting for additional demand for social security, and establishing a £70million food fund to assist the elderly or those self-isolating.
  • Resilience fund and Reserve fund created to allow third-sector organisations to survive and also to give flexibility for further action if required.
  • Landlords will only be able to evict Tenants after six months in arrears, rather than the previous three – legislation will be introduced to this effect.


Schools Closures announced

  • First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated that it was now inevitable that schools and nurseries will be closed – the assumption being that schools will be closed by the end of this week, due to new scientific evidence and reality of short-staffing.
  • Education Secretary John Swinney MSP will address the Scottish Parliament tomorrow afternoon.
  • Specifics of plans for vulnerable children, what it means for pupils taking exams, what it means for key workers especially NHS staff, all to be announced tomorrow.
  • Detail still being prepared; local flexibility will need to be required – example of island communities raised as one particular community with unique challenges.


Plans for IndyRef2 put on hold

  • The Scottish government has confirmed it is no longer planning on holding an independence referendum in 2020.
  • Constitution Secretary Mike Russell confirmed plans had been “paused” due to the coronavirus pandemic in a letter to the UK government.
  • Mr Russell has called on the UK to take “equivalent action” to delay the Brexit process, urging for UK/EU negotiations to be put on hold for six months.


Welsh Assembly


Government Statements

  • The Minister for Education has announced that the Welsh Government is bringing forward the Easter break for schools in Wales in order to ensure that all schools in Wales will be closed by Friday 20 March, at the latest.
  • The Minister for Economy and Transport has argued that he is committed to ensure alignment on the support for businesses between Welsh businesses and those in England, but stresses that there is a funding gap due to differences between the economies of Wales and the rest of the UK. The Minister for Finance and Trefnydd is speaking this afternoon with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and making the case for this perceived funding gap to be filled with additional funding.
  • The Presiding Officer Elin Jones AM, has announced that the Business committee session has agreed that plenary will be held only on Wednesday next week. A full session will be held in the morning and afternoon, allowing First Minister’s Questions, as well as further Ministerial statements, to be held.
  • The Business Committee is also looking at ways in which the Senedd can meet during the Easter recess in order to ensure that Ministers can provide updates to Assembly Members in a timely fashion. Further, the question of whether committee meetings are held next week is currently under review by the Business Committee.


Northern Irish Assembly


In Northern Ireland, the number of positive coronavirus cases stands at 62, whilst 1,482 tests have been completed.

Comments made by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

  • Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill made a joint statement after this morning’s meeting of the Civil Contingencies Group which included representative from pubic services, health and social care; local government and blue light responders.
  • Arlene Foster said that the Group discussed the developing situation and heard from key responders across the public sector regarding the escalation of measures to tackle Covid-19.
  • The First Minister emphasised that “this is a rapidly evolving crisis and we are working collectively to ensure we are as prepared as we can be for what is coming down the tracks. But we can’t do it alone; our plans and preparations will only be effective if everybody follows the public health advice and is mindful of the needs and safety of others.”
  • The Deputy First Minister reinforced the need to work in partnership to protect the most vulnerable and support our front line services and our businesses.


In a press conference coinciding with the PM’s press briefing:

  • The Deputy First Minister announced two new grant schemes for businesses –  a small business grant of £10,000 immediately costing £267m, assisting 27,000 businesses in Northern Ireland; a £25,000 grant for retail and hospitality sectors costing £100m to assist 4,000 businesses.
  • It has also been confirmed that a community support fund will be launched, with other funding around extra support for homeless.


Closure of schools

  • All schools in Northern Ireland will be closed from Monday 23rd March.
  • Teaching unions had been calling on Arlene Foster to set a date for school closures, whilst the education minister had stated that schools should remain open.
  • The education minister had earlier said he could not give a date when all schools would close but confirmed that when they did, it was likely to be until the end of August.
  • The minister also advised that pregnant school teachers and students should not be in schools at present.

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