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Sun, 27 September 2020

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Gavin Williamson urged to ‘get a grip’ as he faces fresh Tory backlash over school masks u-turn

Gavin Williamson urged to ‘get a grip’ as he faces fresh Tory backlash over school masks u-turn

Gavin Williamson has faced backlash over a u-turn on the wearing of masks in schools (PA)

5 min read

Conservative MPs are urging the Education Secretary to “get a grip” as he faces a backlash over the Government u-turn on wearing masks in schools.

1922 committee vice-chair Charles Walker said he was “disappointed” by the move, while fellow Tory and Transport Committee chairman Huw Merriman accused ministers of "making this up as we go along".

The row comes after it was announced late on Tuesday that ministers were dropping the advice that pupils did not need to wear masks in corridors and other communal spaces on school grounds. 

Face coverings will now be mandatory for students over 11 when in shared areas, but only for schools subject to local lockdown restrictions. 

Outside these areas, it will be down to each institution whether they ask pupils to wear them. 

It marks the latest turnaround in Government education policy in recent months following last week's move to allow teacher predictions for GCSE and A-Level grades and a decision earlier in the summer to provide free school meals during the summer holidays.

Mr Walker told Times Radio: "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. 

“We cannot continue to have government by edict, this has been going on for six months." 

He added: "The government just cannot make this stuff up now on the hoof [...] saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday.

"It's just not acceptable."

And the vice-chair of the 1922 committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, said an “increasing number” of his colleagues were now “very worried”.

He continued: “Things now just seem to change on a daily basis and there is growing concern that they tend to change three days after Nicola Sturgeon makes a decision."

Meanwhile, Transport Committee chair Mr Merriman told the Today programme that the u-turn was not the “right decision” as it did not “send the message out that our schools are safe”.

He said: “And I just absolutely fundamentally feel that young people just need to be able to get on with their education, free of any encumbrance, and anything that sends a message out that it's not safe in the corridor, means that it can't be safe in the classroom.”

He added: “My concern is that we just keep making this up as we go along. So, the WHO is not explicit about schools at all — it just states that they should reflect the national picture. 

“And why is it that we're changing it right now, when we haven't been talking about this before?“

The Bexhill and Battle MP said: “People don’t know what the rules are anymore. How can the science change from one day to the next.”

“There comes a point in time when 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.”

He added: “I think we need the firm smack of government behind this, we need to send the message out that schools are a safe setting.”

And Tory MP Marcus Fysh branded the decision "utterly wrong", saying: "Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff."

APPROACH NOT ‘DOGMATIC OR BRITTLE’ 

Gavin Williamson defended his position on the morning media round, insisting that ministers did not take a “dogmatic or brittle” approach to the evolving scientific advice.

He said: “At every stage we always listen to the best scientific and medical advice. 

“We always have all the way through this process and you can probably remember back when we issued the first guidance back in May of this year, about welcoming children back into schools from the first of June, that guidance was quite clear about keeping this under review. 

“When we issued the further guidance in early July about welcoming all youngsters back into schools from September we again clear about the fact that this was something that was going to be constantly under review…

“And having looked at the World Health Health Organisation report we felt that it was important to, as well as all the protections that we've already got in place and teachers and headteachers and support staff have been putting in place all over the summer, there were some schools, a small number of secondary schools within local lockdown areas, where it was useful and important to have that extra layer of protection.”

He added: “You would always hope the politicians don't take a dogmatic or brittle approach to anything. 

“I think it's incredibly important that on everything that we do we actually look and this has been our approach right from the start of taking a really careful cautious approach, about welcoming children back into schools.”

EDUCATION UNIONS: MOVE IS A ‘HALF-WAY HOUSE’

But joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) Kevin Courtney said that there was now "a lack of confidence when ministers and senior medical advisers say different things for four days".

He said: “This is no sort of assurance for the profession, parents or the public. The Government should have been looking at that WHO advice, coming to a considered position and then presenting it to the public. 

“The alternative has been slow, incoherent, and a failure of leadership.”
 
"We welcome the steps now being taken, but it is a halfway house to pass the decision to headteachers. There has to be a science-led approach from the top.”

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