Boris Johnson is under intense pressure to change his guidance on face coverings in schools with just days to go until pupils return to classrooms.
As Scotland confirmed that its students will wear masks in communal areas from Monday, the prime minister hinted at an imminent U-turn on official advice that says they are not needed in English schools, saying: “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
Headteachers are urging ministers to review the policy, while the Welsh government has asked its scientific advisers to “revisit the evidence”. Pressure for change also came from London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, who said Mr Johnson must listen to the growing body of evidence that masks make schools safer.
Senior Conservative backbencher Robert Halfon, who chairs the House of Commons Education Committee, said Mr Johnson had 24 hours to provide clarity.
“I want kids, more than anything, to be able to return to school next week,” Mr Halfon told Times Radio. “I want parents, teachers and support staff to be reassured that everything is OK and to know what the mask policy is. This must be made final in the next 24 hours and people have got to stick to it.”
The return of schools is being seen as a crucial test of the government’s handling of the restoration of more normal conditions after five months of restrictions, with ministers hoping it will trigger a widespread return to Covid-secure workplaces by parents. But the escalating row over masks suggests Mr Johnson risks losing control of a process which he has described as “absolutely vital”.
There were signs that some schools will ignore the official guidance. The Oasis Academy chain announced that staff and pupils in its 52 schools will be wearing masks as part of their uniform when doors reopen. Founder Steve Chalke told the BBC that “we believe this makes our schools safer than they would otherwise be”.
Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary Geoff Barton said it would be “prudent” for the government to rethink its advice in the light of the Scottish decision and recent guidance from the World Health Organisation that children aged over 12 should wear masks.
“We have two concerns,” said Mr Barton. “First, parents, pupils and staff will be anxious about the situation and need reassurance from the government about the public health basis for its policy over face coverings in England, rather than it being left entirely to schools to explain the government’s rationale.
“And, second, if there is going to be any U-turn by the government that it does this sooner rather than later because the start of the new term is imminent.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “We have to stay abreast of the science, so when the World Health Organisation says that children over 12 should wear masks in communal areas at school, that ought to be listened to,” he said.
“The WHO also recommends that staff over 60 or otherwise vulnerable should be wearing a medical grade mask, and the government should be looking at the science on that as well.”
The chair of the British Medical Association’s medical academic staff committee, Dr David Strain, said that the early start of autumn term in Scotland two weeks ago had seen one school forced to close by a Covid outbreak linked to 27 infections.
“In order to minimise the need to re-implement lockdown measures, any step – no matter how small – would be of benefit to ensure children and young adults are enabled to resume their education,” said Dr Strain.
“In view of this, it becomes more important for the prime minister to explain why the government is choosing to ignore WHO guidance, rather than for anybody else to justify why masks should be used in situations where pupils cannot maintain physical distance, such as in school corridors.”
On Monday, a No 10 spokesperson said there were “no plans” to review the guidance on face coverings in schools, telling reporters: “We are conscious of the fact that it would obstruct communication between teachers and pupils.”
But asked during a visit to a Devon shipyard on Tuesday why the UK government was ignoring WHO advice, Mr Johnson said: “On the issue of whether or not to wear masks in some contexts – you know, we’ll look at the the changing medical evidence as we go on.
“If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
He added: “The overwhelming priority is to get all pupils into school.
“And I think that the schools, the teachers, they’ve all done a fantastic job of getting ready and the risk to children’s health, the risk to children’s wellbeing from not being in school is far greater than the risk from Covid.
“If there are things we have to do to vary the advice on medical grounds, we will, of course, do that.
“But as the chief medical officer, all our scientific advisers, have said, schools are safe.”
Scotland’s education secretary, John Swinney, confirmed on Tuesday that face coverings must be worn by staff and pupils when moving around secondary schools in Scotland from Monday, while all children over five should use them on school transport. Masks will not be required in classrooms and Mr Swinney stressed that pupils will not be excluded from school if they do not wear a face covering.
“There is increasing evidence that face coverings can provide some protection for the wearer as well as those around them,” Mr Swinney said.
“We also know that some pupils have found it very difficult to physically distance when moving around school, which could increase the risk of transmission of the virus. And on school transport, as on public transport, there can be mixing between different age groups.
“We want to continue to protect what we have achieved in suppressing the virus and re-opening schools, and to do the best for children in schools.”
Later, Welsh health secretary, Vaughan Gething, announced a review of guidance by the Cardiff executive’s scientific advisory group.
“They will look at any additional risks and benefits to children, young people and staff from the wearing of face coverings in the school setting,” he said. “Our technical advisers are revisiting the evidence and will provide us with further advice later today. In doing so, it is important that we take decisions that are proportionate, that are owned and that are appropriate to their setting and local population.”
Meanwhile, Mr Khan said he had asked officials to speak with Scottish counterparts ahead of the return of pupils in the capital next week. Although the London mayor, who was at the forefront of calls for mandatory face-coverings on public transport, has no power to enforce the use of masks in London schools, any advice from him could be expected to be influential on headteachers and would increase pressure on Mr Johnson to change course.
Sources said he was “moving towards” the position that teenagers should wear masks in situations where social distancing is not possible.
And the mayor said: “Students need to be back in school and resume their learning in a safe environment. It is vital that we do all we can to ensure we limit the spread of coronavirus in all settings, including in schools.
“The World Health Organisation has advised children over 12 to wear a face covering where they can’t socially distance, and as more countries are introducing them in school corridors and communal areas, it’s important that lessons are learned.
“I have continually called on government to respond to the latest health advice, and my team are speaking with officials in Scotland to ensure we have the most up-to-date advice ahead of our schools returning.”
For Labour, Ms Green said: “There is a growing body of evidence that the use of face masks in communal areas in secondary schools helps protect students and staff and drive down transmission.
“The prime minister must listen to this evidence and act quickly to give certainty to parents and teachers who are just days away from schools reopening.
“The last thing concerned parents and pupils need is another last minute U-turn from this government that throws school plans into chaos.”
Mr Johnson’s comment came just hours after business secretary Alok Sharma dug in his heels on the advice, telling Sky News: “PHE [Public Health England] do not recommend the wearing of face masks in schools ... there is no current plan to review that particular guidance.”
Teachers’ unions have been arguing that face masks should be recommended in schools since at least July. The National Education Union this week accused ministers of being “negligent in the extreme” over the issue.
Unison, Britain’s largest trade union which represents a number of non-teaching staff in schools, also today reiterated its call for adults working in schools to be allowed to wear masks.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, has said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”.
Education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has meanwhile argued that other measures being adopted by schools to limit the spread of coronavirus meant coverings were not necessary.
Schools have been advised to keep students in year-group “bubbles” where they do not interact with other children, and reorganise classrooms for social distancing. Local health teams are expected to intervene in schools where outbreaks are detected, including potentially with mass testings or localised closures.
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