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Chris Whitty Told To Urgently Explain Science Behind Masks In Schools Before Children Return On Monday

Chris Whitty Told To Urgently Explain Science Behind Masks In Schools Before Children Return On Monday
5 min read

The government is being urged to set out to parents and teachers the science behind new guidance recommending secondary school pupils to wear masks in class when they return to school on Monday.

Chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon MP, said outlining the science behind the move could boost take-up among pupils and give teachers the backing to insist that children wear them for one another's safety. 

Halfon believes chief medical officer Chris Whitty or his deputy Jonathan Van Tam, who is also well known to the public, should write an open letter to parents and teachers this weekend to explain why it is important for masks to be worn in school up until the Easter holiday. 

Otherwise the policy – which is advice only – will fail and risks a difficult start to the school return, he suggested. 

Speaking to PoliticsHome, Halfon said: "You might have some parents challenge the decisions of the headteachers on the masks if they don't want their children to wear masks. That's going to put enormous pressure on teachers and support staff because the guidance is [only] guidance. 

"The chief medical officer should publish an open letter explaining to the country and to parents where the scientific evidence is and why they believe that masks are necessary. They should publish that over the weekend. 

"One way or the other the government has got to make it very clear what is required so that parents are clear."

Asked about Halfon's remarks at the Downing Street daily press conference by PoliticsHome, Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at Public Health England, said masks were part of the advice they had drawn up to reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus in secondary schools.

"Our face coverings and facemask group have reviewed the evidence, and also looked at the variant that we have circulating, B117," she explained.

"It was with that variant and with the increased transmissions that we were seeing around the school environment – especially in secondary schools – that the advice for secondary school children to wear masks in the classroom and in corridors came as part of the advice package to reduce the risk... on the return on March 8." 

There have been concerns since the policy was announced about whether masks, which the government wants 11 to 18-year-olds to wear at school, are harmful for children's mental health, will lead to communication problems and may impact learning. 

The request, however, is a recommendation, and comes with no enforceable action, leaving teachers powerless to intervene if pupils refuse to wear them. 

Halfon's intervention comes as the "UsforThem" organisation, which is he not part of, launched a campaign called #NOMASKSINCLASS backed by over 150 teachers, medics, academics and celebrities.

Former England tennis star Tim Henman is among those who think children shouldn't have to wear the masks, as well as TV presenters Richard Madeley and Anthea Turner.

Conservative MP Harriett Baldwin, who is backing the campaign, said: “It is wonderful that all children are heading back to school on March 8, but the World Health Organisation requires governments around the world to show the evidence and the cost benefit analysis they’ve performed when recommending that children wear masks. 

"I hope the government can urgently publish this work before 8 March, along with the scientific evidence which underpins this latest instruction to schools, so that headteachers can decide what to do.”

Fellow Tory and chair of the 1922 committe of backbench MPs, Sir Graham Brady, said: "By 8 March, the top four groups will have - in the words of the four chief scientific officers - ‘substantial protection’ from COVID.  Why are these additional measures necessary now when they weren’t deemed necessary last Autumn?”

In response to the campaign, a government spokesperson said: “We are recommending that secondary school and college students wear face coverings where social distancing cannot be maintained as a temporary measure to provide additional reassurance and protection against the transmission of the virus.

“We have committed to reviewing this recommendation by Easter, and in line with all decision-making throughout the pandemic, will follow the best available scientific and public health advice at the time.”

All the main teaching unions, and unions who have staff working in schools or in the field of education, issued a joint statement this morning asking for flexibility to take decisions on pupil and staff safety locally. This comes after some unions called for a phased return. 

The statement, signed by the GMB and teaching union the National Education Union, said: "The raft of measures utilised following previous lockdowns has now been added to with a ramping up of testing and a greater use of face masks.

"However, many scientists (including SAGE) recommended a phased reopening and have warned that these measures on their own may not be enough to deal with the increased risk of airborne transmission as schools reopen fully.

"It is therefore imperative that government gives schools the flexibility to take measures to strengthen the safety of students and staff in their local context."

Halfon said that he expected most schools to open on Monday. 

He said: "There will be a bit of laxity with some schools taking a few days to open for Covid reasons but on the whole most people are geared up to schools opening." 

Mass testing, which teachers and staff are overseeing, is likely to get good take-up he said – better than mask wearing – and said there is no need to move to an "opt in" model, as has been suggested by some MPs. 

Currently parents and guardians must give permission to allow their children to take part in testing which Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh said in the Commons this week meant some schools are unable to test up to half of their pupils.

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