Boris Johnson shifts advice on face masks in England’s schools just days before reopening
Boris Johnson paved the way for the change on Tuesday. (PA)
The Government has dropped its advice against the use of face coverings in England’s schools just days before they are due to reopen.
Headteachers in England will now be given the “discretion” to require staff and children in Year 7 or above to don face coverings in communal areas such as corridors when they return from next week.
And the use of face coverings will become mandatory in those same communal areas in parts of England subject to stricter local coronavirus lockdown conditions, such as Greater Manchester and Leicester.
But the Government says it “will not be necessary to wear face coverings in the classroom” because of protective measures already in place and the risk of undermining learning.
Labour accused ministers of “passing the buck” to teachers, while some Conservative MPs reacted with anger to the 11th-hour change in advice.
The move comes ahead of next week's planned reopening of schools in England, and after calls from education unions and for the Government to shift its stance. Scotland made a similar move at the start of the week.
Boris Johnson on Tuesday paved the way for the U-turn as he said he would "of course" change advice on the wearing of face masks in schools if there was "changing medical evidence" to suggest they could halt the spread of infection.
Pointing to updated guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Tuesday night 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.”
'HALF BAKED U-TURN'
But Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green accused ministers of shifting responsibility for the decision on to schools themselves by not making masks mandatory.
“Parents and schools needed clarity and leadership, but instead the government have just passed the buck back to them,” the opposition frontbencher said.
Ms Green added: “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.”
The Prime Minister is also facing anger from some Conservative MPs at the handling of the change.
Tory MP Marcus Fysh branded the decision "utterly wrong", and said: "Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff."
Fellow Tory MP and Transport Comittee chairman Huw Merriman warned the shift could prompt calls for mask use in classrooms, which he argued would “further downgrade the learning environment”.
“Like every other risk in our daily lives, we need to embed Covid and proportionately live with it,” he said.
And The Times quotes a senior backbencher who said it was "beyond comprehension why this wasn’t done earlier".
They added: "It’s mess after mess, U-turn after U-turn. Parents and teachers will lose confidence in the party."
The Department for Education said the new approach would also apply to further education colleges, but primary school children will be excluded from the change because of a lower risk of transmission for pupils in that age group.
It has promised detailed guidance on face coverings in education settings “shortly”.