Government has taken 'cautious and careful approach' on getting kids back to school

26 August 2020, 06:08

The change follows World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks
The change follows World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks. Picture: Getty
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The Government has announced face coverings should be worn by staff and pupils in secondary schools in lockdown areas of England and at the discretion of post-primary schools across the country.

The move was announced on Tuesday night following a day of pressure on the Government to change their policy in line with Scotland.

The Department for Education (DfE) advised that in areas under local restrictions, face coverings should be worn when moving around corridors and communal areas.

They will not need to be worn in classrooms, because other protective measures will already be in place and they might affect learning, it added.

Read more: Government sets out guidance on school face coverings in England

The change follows World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks, the Government said.

Speaking to Nick Ferrari on LBC, Gavin Williamson said the Government has taken a "cautious and careful approach" on getting children back into schools.

Asked about public confidence following the U-turn, the Education Secretary said: "At every stage, what we're focused on is making sure all children return back to school in September.

"We don't want to be seeing children ... wearing masks in schools up and down the country, but in certain areas where it's necessary, where we're in local lockdown.

"This has been typical at every stage of this crisis that we have taken a cautious and careful approach welcoming children back to schools. I think that's what people expect and that's what we're doing in this instance.

"We've seen the move welcomed by unions in terms of clarity that it brings, because there was some concern in the teaching community, quite understandably, when they saw the advice come out from the World Health Organisation."

Explained: Everything you need to know on masks in schools across the UK

While the move has been roundly welcomed, Labour branded it a "half baked U-turn", arguing that masks should have been made compulsory in communal areas and that the buck had been passed back to schools.

Just this week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted measures being adopted by schools to limit the spread of coronavirus meant masks were not required, and a Number 10 spokesman had said there were no plans to review the guidance.

But announcing the change in advice on Tuesday, Mr 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."

Full guidance has not yet been published, but is expected "shortly" the department said, and will come into effect from September 1.

In a warning that advice could change again, the DfE said stricter guidance could be issued for schools nationally if the rate of transmission increases across the country.

The advice will also apply to further education colleges and will be reflected in guidance to universities, the department said.

It will not apply in primary schools because the risks to children in those settings are lower, the DfE said.

Earlier Prime Minister Boris Johnson had hinted that guidance may change, as pressure grew on ministers.

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."

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, 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."

Post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland will be asked to wear face coverings in corridors and other communal areas, Stormont's education minister Peter Weir said on Tuesday.

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

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.