Exclusive: End of face masks in the classroom as Boris Johnson defies unions

·5-min read
Pupils at a school in Coydon wear face masks in the classroom – a requirement that is set to end on May 17 - Aaron Chown/PA
Pupils at a school in Coydon wear face masks in the classroom – a requirement that is set to end on May 17 - Aaron Chown/PA

Boris Johnson will defy trade union pressure and announce on Monday that secondary school children will no longer have to wear face masks in class, The Telegraph understands.

The Prime Minister will confirm that the Government guidance is changing from May 17, when England moves into stage three of the reopening roadmap, according to multiple senior Whitehall sources.

Officials at the Department for Education are already drafting the new guidance, which will drop the recommendation that English secondary school pupils should wear face masks in class, while still encouraging their use in corridors.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, told The Telegraph that the success of the vaccine rollout and the current low level of Covid cases in schools had paved the way for the move.

"As infection rates continue to decline and our vaccination programme rolls out successfully, we plan to remove the requirement for face coverings in the classroom at step three of the roadmap," he said.

Gavin Williamson said the success of the vaccine rollout and the current low level of Covid cases in schools meant the mask guidance could be changed - Paul Grover/The Telegraph
Gavin Williamson said the success of the vaccine rollout and the current low level of Covid cases in schools meant the mask guidance could be changed - Paul Grover/The Telegraph

However, on Thursday night education trade unions – which have been pushing to keep masks in classrooms into the summer – threatened to defy the change.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said he would stick by teachers who still wanted pupils to wear masks, adding the coverings remained in place as a "precautionary measure".

The government guidance is only advisory rather than backed by law, meaning teachers will retain some autonomy about what to do in the classroom.

On Thursday night, it emerged that NEU members were quitting over the stance on masks. One member, who intends to resign this week, told The Telegraph: "They are giving teachers a bad name. People are dropping out of the union left, right and centre."

Meanwhile, a government source said the union position amounted to hypocrisy because its members would be able to socialise inside homes without masks when the rules on indoor household mixing are relaxed from May 17.

"The very same teachers and union leaders will be entirely happy to go to their mate's house and mix inside without masks. But they're against going inside a classroom without a mask," the source said.

Current government guidance says pupils in secondary schools should wear masks in corridors and communal areas if they cannot socially distance. This will not change.

However, it also says that pupils and teachers in secondary schools should wear masks in the classroom where social distancing is not possible – a point that has been much debated.

There had been hopes that the classroom masks rule could be dropped after the Easter holidays, but despite lobbying from Mr Williamson, the guidance was extended.

Some teachers and education specialists have warned that wearing a mask inhibits learning, causing a distraction for some children.

Many of the leading trade unions representing teachers, including the NEU, NASUWT, Unison, Unite, GMB have been calling for masks in class to be kept.

However, Mr Johnson and members of his Downing Street inner circle have been convinced of the need to lift the rule, according to multiple well-placed government sources.

One said it was more than "99 per cent" certain that the guidance change would be announced on Monday, when the Prime Minister is due to give a press conference on reopening. Two other government sources said similar.

The final decision will be taken over the weekend or on Monday, when government scientists present the latest Covid data to Number 10. Only a radical deterioration in the data could stop the announcement, according to well-placed sources.

Boris Johnson, pictured during a visit to an academy in London last month, is '99 per cent' certain to announce the change on Monday, according to a source - Dan Kitwood/Pool via Reuters
Boris Johnson, pictured during a visit to an academy in London last month, is '99 per cent' certain to announce the change on Monday, according to a source - Dan Kitwood/Pool via Reuters

Mr Williamson told The Telegraph: "Virus transmission in schools continues to be low, with the latest data showing a significant decrease in students and staff testing positive and cases isolated quickly thanks to our twice-weekly rapid testing programme.

"Removing face masks will hugely improve interactions between teachers and students, while all other school safety measures will remain in place to help keep the virus out of classrooms."

But the decision to change the mask guidance looks set to be fought by unions, including the NEU, and Mr Courtney said: "In the circumstances, I think some schools will maintain masks for a while longer and that might vary depending on the level of the virus in their area."

He added that masks were an important "psychological reminder" for teenagers that "there is still something to be concerned about" and said mid-May was too soon to end the use of masks in the classroom because it would take a few weeks to see whether virus cases went up due to the relaxation of other restrictions in society.

"There is still the question of what happens after May 17 when there is another loosening of restrictions and whether we see cases increase in schools," he said. "Everyone is looking at the data and I think some schools will continue to use face masks after May 17 and the NEU would support schools in making that decision."

But there were signs of discomfort with that position from inside some unions. One NEU rep told The Telegraph that the union had failed to consult with members before writing to Mr Williamson this week to urge him to keep masks in the classroom until June 21 at the earliest.

"When they say the union supports this, who are they speaking for – who have they asked? I genuinely don't know," he said.