Conservative MPs expressed alarm to whips and ministers before the government U-turn on masks in schools, after which the government decided to only partially enforce face-coverings, Tory sources have claimed.
Whitehall sources briefed on Tuesday afternoon that the government was planning to follow Scotland’s lead and impose mandatory face masks for secondary school pupils in communal areas.
After rumours emerged of the U-turn, at least 20 MPs, many of whom had not spoken out publicly, expressed both public and private alarm to party whips, ministers and government advisers, the Guardian understands.
Late on Tuesday night, the Department for Education announced it would change Public Health England’s advice – but the U-turn was only partial and makes face coverings for secondary pupils mandatory only in areas of England which have stricter lockdown rules. Elsewhere, it will be at the discretion of headteachers.
On Wednesday it was announced that Wales would require schools to undertake risk assessments to determine whether masks should be worn in school communal areas where the 2-metre rule cannot be maintained, a move criticised by some heads.
An MP said the fact the advice in England was less stringent was proof “the system works” after MPs raised their concerns. “I’ve said nothing publicly but I was very clear with whips and ministers.”
Conservative MP Marcus Fysh, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on education, said he was pleased the government had not issued a blanket order. He had called for masks to be banned in schools and accused the government of “pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff”.
“I welcome that the UK government has not, like in Scotland, mistakenly applied mask wearing in schools across the country,” he tweeted. “Aside from the other problems to overcome with masks which the WHO highlights, there isn’t widespread transmission of the Covid virus at this point in the UK.”
Several MPs were still publicly angry on Wednesday. Huw Merriman, the chair of the transport select committee, said the public needed “the firm smack of government” and an end to the persistent U-turns.
“I think the government needs to get a grip of our scientists. I’m sick and tired, and I think many people in the public are sick and tired, the science just changes,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It’s baffling for many people, it’s causing uncertainty, it’s causing worry. People don’t know what the rules are any more. How can the science change from one day to the next?
“There comes a point in time where policymakers have to get a grip on policy, decide what it is, be firm with it, be certain, give reassurance and say ‘this is the way we’re going to act’.”
Others said they were concerned by persistent U-turns. Charles Walker, vice-chair of the Conservative 1922 Committee of backbenchers, told Times Radio that MPs “just basically end up scratching our heads” and said an increasing number of colleagues were “very worried”.
“What we are in now are the biggest of policy issues, restricting people’s liberties and freedoms with very little science attached to it … let’s debate these issues on the floor of the House of Commons,” he said. “We cannot continue to have government by edict, this has been going on for six months.”
He said there was a “growing concern that they tend to change three days after Nicola Sturgeon makes a decision”.
Trade unions have cautiously welcomed the government’s backtrack on mask advice, though hundreds of schools had begun to take the unilateral decision to recommend face coverings for pupils.
Karen Leonard, GMB national officer, said staff should never have been actively discouraged from wearing masks. “It’s time ministers learned to listen to the concerns of the school staff who will be instrumental in keeping our schools safe and, importantly, open,” she said.
Teachers have also expressed some concern about the nature of the U-turn. Tara O’Halloran, deputy headteacher at Flixton Girls school in Trafford, Greater Manchester, which will be subject to mandatory face masks, told the BBC: “I think we are a bit dizzy from all of the U-turns that have happened this summer.”
One headteacher said she was concerned about the impact on behaviour. Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of Michaela community school in north London, who has been an outspoken advocate for tougher school discipline, said masks could make students less safe.
“They will be wearing reused dirty masks, they will swap them, ping them, they will lick and spit on each other’s masks for a joke,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “They will be touching their faces all the more; I would argue they make them less safe.”
School leaders in Wales have reacted angrily to advice on face masks from the Welsh government, which means heads must take responsibility.
Laura Doel, the director of NAHT Cymru, the headteachers’ union, said: “Headteachers are not medical experts and the Welsh government should not put them in this position.”
Source: The Guardian