Government U-turn on face masks for English secondary schools

25 August 2020, 21:58

The government has U-turned over face masks in schools
The government has U-turned over face masks in schools. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

The government has abandoned advice that pupils should not wear face masks in English secondary schools.

The Prime Minister has performed another U-turn in the face of criticism from teachers, unions and medical experts.

Face coverings will be mandatory for secondary school children returning to school in areas subject to local lockdown measures.

However, headteacher will retain discretion over the use of face masks in schools in other parts on England.

The Department for Education has advised that it will not be necessary to wear face coverings in the classroom, where protective measures already mean the risks are lower.

It comes just day after the government initially said that face masks should not be used in schools.

A statement issued by the Department for Education said that the U-turn has come about as a result of a change in the World Health Organisation's (WHO) advice.

The WHO issued new guidance on 21 August saying "children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a 1-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area".

The climb down comes after the Welsh government announced it was going to review whether children should wear face coverings in schools.

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said a decision on schoolchildren wearing face coverings will be made on Wednesday, but current guidance says masks are not being recommended.

Scottish pupils have already been told that masks will be compulsory in corridors and communal areas.

Every pupil over the age of five will also have to wear face masks on school buses in Scotland.

In the statement, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "Our priority is to get children back to school safely.

"At each stage we have listened to the latest medical and scientific advice. We have therefore decided to follow the World Health Organisation's new advice.

"In local lockdown areas children in year 7 and above should wear face coverings in communal spaces.

"Outside of local lockdown areas face coverings won't be required in schools, though schools will have the flexibility to introduce measures if they believe it is right in their specific circumstances.

"I hope these steps will provide parents, pupils and teachers with further reassurance."

Earlier Prime Minister Boris Johnson had hinted that guidance may change, as pressure grew on ministers from teaching unions and after Holyrood confirmed secondary school pupils in Scotland will be required to wear face coverings in between lessons, from Monday.

Mr Johnson told reporters the Government will "look at the changing medical evidence as we go on", adding: "If we need to change the advice then of course we will."

The official guidance comes into effect on August 31 when schools there return on a full-time basis.

Officials announced another 1,184 confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday - up from 853 on Monday - and 16 more deaths among people who had tested positive for the virus.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan criticised the Conservatives for appearing only to make the decision following pressure.

He wrote on Twitter: "Our children must be able to return to school in a safe environment and I welcome the latest u-turn by the Govt - a step in the right direction.

"However, it is of huge concern that yet again the PM has had to be forced into following the advice of public health officials."

Kate Green, Labour's shadow education secretary, described the change as a "half baked U-turn".

She said: "Parents and schools needed clarity and leadership, but instead the Government have just passed the buck back to them.

"Face coverings should be compulsory in communal areas in schools.

"Instead of this half baked U-turn the Government should have given clear guidance and a plan to deliver it."

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which had called on the Government to keep its advice under review, said the change was "inevitable".

He said: "The new policy is discretionary, other than in places where coronavirus restrictions apply, and secondary school and college leaders will welcome the flexibility this affords them to decide what best suits their circumstances.

"We look forward to seeing the full guidance as early as possible."