The Prime Minister was chairing his first Cabinet meeting after the summer recess facing a lengthening list of political headaches including the economy and cross-Channel migrants.
Two by-elections in the offing will pose a serious test for the Conservatives, with the RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) issue suddenly thrust up the agenda, too.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb denied that Mr Sunak had short-changed children’s safety by refusing to rebuild more schools when he was Chancellor.
He conceded that Jonathan Slater, the Department for Education’s former top civil servant, was correct in stating that Mr Sunak had allowed annual funding for only 50 school rebuilds from 2020, but insisted this was in line with previous years.
“I asked officials about this yesterday and we can’t find any reference to that,” he said, after Mr Slater said officials had wanted 300-400 schools to be rebuilt or repaired, adding that no Government department ever got all that it wanted from the Treasury.
Mr Gibb also pushed back at a claim by National Audit Office head Gareth Davies that the Government had pursued a "sticking plaster approach" to essential schools maintenance.
The minister told Sky News: “We’re spending £1.8 billion a year … and we are taking more proactive action on that than any other government in the world.”
Out of 156 schools identified as containing the weakened concrete, 52 have already seen emergency measures and children there are expected to be out of their classrooms for an average of six days, Mr Gibb said.
“I expect the same thing to happen in the remaining 104 schools,” he told LBC, “and I suspect that will be all sorted out far sooner than Christmas”.
Ms Keegan’s position was questioned by some Conservative MPs after she was caught on a hot mic apparently complaining that she was not being given more credit for battling to fix the RAAC problem.
Questions were also raised about why she remained on holiday in Spain for the last week of August, when officials decided that RAAC in schools posed a greater risk than previously thought, abruptly throwing the start of the new term into confusion for many children and parents.
Mr Gibb said his boss had apologised for her “off the cuff” outburst, and that she was venting her “frustration” at the ITV reporter’s line of questioning, “when the department and civil service have been working so hard to protect our children and ensure the safety of our schools”.
Ninety-five per cent of some 24,000 schools in England have responded to questionnaires detailing whether they have RAAC in the fabric of their buildings. “We have chased those questionnaires several times. What the frustration is we want that remaining five per cent to respond,” the minister said.
The Department for Education has set a deadline of Friday for those schools to respond, but will still publish a list of all schools affected this week, he said.
Labour shadow minister Jonathan Ashworth accused the Government of presiding over a “total shambles”, telling Sky: “They asked for more investment in schools and Rishi Sunak cut it back.”
But a day after Sir Keir Starmer revamped his shadow Cabinet ahead of a General Election next year, Mr Ashworth refused to spell out whether Labour would restore a more ambitious programme of school repairs if it wins power.
The RAAC problem is not confined to schools, with hospitals and court buildings also being surveyed.
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said it would be "enormously concerning" if the weaker concrete was found in prison buildings, as space is already in short supply and to close parts off "isn’t an option".
"What you would normally do in response to that in the prison service would be to close down a couple of wings of the prison, reboot the jail, and then get it back up to working well again,” he said on Times Radio.
“But at the moment, that simply isn’t an option, because there aren’t enough spaces in prisons to be able to do that kind of remedial work that needs to happen where a prison has descended into that level of chaos.”