Advice on wearing masks in schools in England will shift if the medical evidence is persuasive, Boris Johnson has said as pressure mounts from schools and unions.
“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,” the prime minister told reporters on Tuesday. “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
No 10’s advice has been rapidly overtaken by events as dozens of schools took the unilateral decision to provide face coverings.
The Scottish government has confirmed that secondary schools would be given “obligatory” guidance that pupils should wear face coverings in corridors, communal areas and school buses from next Monday.
The World Health Organization and Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, says those aged 12 and over should wear masks to help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. That advice led the Association of School and College Leaders, a union that represents more than 19,000 senior staff, to call on the government to review its guidance.
Johnson said the priority was to get children back to school, reiterating that the risk to children’s health was low. “If there are things we have to do to vary the advice on medical grounds, we will of course do that,” he said. “But as the chief medical officer, all our scientific advisers, have said, schools are safe.”
Staff at 52 schools run by the academy chain Oasis have been told to wear face coverings and pupils will be asked to wear them in corridors. Steve Chalke, founder of the multi-academy trust, told BBC News that face coverings would be considered part of the uniform.
“There is no such thing as being Covid-safe, just Covid-safer,” he said. “Based on our values and our sense of morality – these are the moves that we are choosing to make.” Face visors and masks are being provided for all school staff and masks for secondary pupils will be colour coded for year groups to use in corridors.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said it should be permissible for staff members and students to wear face masks if they wish to do so.
“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,” he said.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said her party backed the wider wearing of masks in schools. “It seems clear that in areas where pupils cannot socially distance such as busy corridors, just like in shops, face coverings should be worn,” she said. “On nearly every measure to stop the spread of the virus the government has lagged behind, and u-turned later. This has been an incredibly damaging pattern and, It is more than likely that it will repeat on this issue.”
Alok Sharma, the business secretary, had said earlier on Tuesday that there was no plan to review the guidance and the government had “followed the scientific advice and medical advice that we’ve been getting… but Public Health England has been very clear, which is that they do not recommend the wearing of face masks in schools and the reason for this is because children, pupils are obviously mixing in the same cohorts”.
However, he said schools would not be reprimanded for setting different rules. “I don’t think we want to go down the road of penalising people,” he said.
On Monday, No 10 said it was not changing its guidance on masks in schools in England. “Our guidance does not recommend face masks in school,” a spokesman said. “We acknowledge face coverings could obstruct communication between teachers and pupils.”
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who has faced calls to resign over his handling of A-Level results, has said parents must not hang round the school gates as pupils return to classrooms. “We’re asking all parents to show understanding and consideration to the whole school community,” he told the Evening Standard.
Most schools have put in place staggered starts to make sure that there’s a swift and good flow-through of parents, and we just ask people to be respectful of the systems that are being put into place. We’d ask parents just to be really considerate, make sure they’re able to drop their children off and then get on with all the tasks of their day.”
Source: The Guardian