Pupils in England will no longer be advised against using face masks in secondary schools after Boris Johnson made an 11th-hour U-turn days before classrooms reopen.
In lockdown areas such as Greater Manchester, which have greater restrictions to stop the spread of the virus, wearing face coverings will become mandatory in school corridors where social distancing is more difficult.
In areas of England not subject to tighter restrictions, headteachers will have discretion over whether to require face masks, but the government will no longer advise against their use, a senior government source said.
The prime minister bowed to pressure and changed the guidance late on Tuesday after scores of headteachers broke ranks to urge their use, backed by Labour and trade unions.
Johnson told reporters earlier in the day he would “look at the changing medical evidence as we go on” but insisted schools would be safe regardless.
The new guidance came after Scotland said secondary school pupils should wear masks in communal areas and on school buses, and days before millions of students are due to return to schools across England.
The change risks a major backlash from Conservative MPs, some of whom had publicly challenged him not to change tack for schools in England. One said the idea of pupils wearing masks in schools went “way too far” and many colleagues were angry, adding: “Hopefully the whips will get the message.”
The UK government has been under pressure to review its advice on masks in schools after the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its guidance at the weekend to say that face coverings were useful to curb the spread of Covid-19 where physical distancing between adults and pupils aged 12 and over was impossible, or in areas of high transmission.
Scotland confirmed on Tuesday that secondary schools would be given “obligatory” guidance on pupils wearing face coverings, while Wales is reviewing its advice.
The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said on Tuesday morning that there was “no plan” to review guidance for England, but Johnson told reporters a few hours later that he would “look at the changing medical evidence as we go on”. Speaking on a visit to south-west England, the prime minister added: “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
Hundreds of schools in England said on Tuesday they were preparing to allow or encourage pupils to wear face coverings in communal areas in defiance of the current advice.
Huw Merriman, the Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle and chair of the transport select committee, said masks in schools would “further downgrade the learning environment. Like every other risk in our daily lives, we need to embed Covid and proportionately live with it.”
The Tory backbencher Marcus Fysh said: “Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff,” he said. “ It is time to end the fear. And keep it away from our kids thank you very much.”
A government source insisted schools were safe for pupils regardless of the U-turn, highlighting preparations the government had made and the lack of transmission when some pupils returned before the summer.
However, the source said, the WHO advice had to be taken seriously and therefore face masks would be mandatory for pupils in lockdown areas and “permissive” for all other schools.
One of England’s biggest multi-academy chains, Oasis, which represents more than 28,000 pupils at 52 schools, said earlier on Tuesday it would defy the UK advice and ask older students to wear masks in communal places.
Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust, said schools had a “moral responsibility” to make their environment as safe as possible and following the same guidance as Scotland was “the common sense place” for the UK government to end up.
The Academies Enterprise Trust, which represents more than 33,000 pupils at 58 schools, said staff and pupils could wear masks if they wished and the educational charity Ark, which has 27,000 children enrolled at 37 schools, said it would let teachers do so.
Laura Berman, an education lawyer and partner at the law firm Stone King, said she had been contacted by schools wanting to make the wearing of face coverings part of their policy.
“Schools are trying, as always, to do the right thing by their students. They want to keep their school community as safe as possible and at the same time continue to deliver effective teaching and learning.”
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, had hinted before the government U-turn that he could unilaterally advise schools in the capital to adopt the wearing of face masks.
The change to the WHO advice led the Association of School and College Leaders, a union representing more than 19,000 senior staff, to call on the government to review its guidance.
The previous Department for Education advice, first issued in July, said it did not recommend the use of face coverings in schools because pupils and staff were mixing in consistent groups and because misuse “may inadvertently increase the risk of transmission”. Wearing face masks in schools could cause “negative effects on communication and thus education”, it added.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We have to stay abreast of the science, so when the World Health Organization says that children over 12 should wear masks in communal areas at school, that ought to be listened to.”
Labour and the Lib Dems had urged the government to change its advice as quickly as possible to give schools time to prepare.
It comes after an exams fiasco in which tens of thousands of teacher-recommended A-level results in England were downgraded, only to be reinstated days after the same reversal in Scotland.
The Lib Dem health spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said it was a “damaging pattern” that the government appeared to be consistently behind the science. “On nearly every measure to stop the spread of the virus the government has lagged behind, and U-turned later,” she said.
Source: The Guardian