Rules requiring secondary school pupils in England to wear masks are to be scrapped, the education secretary has said, despite pleas by teaching unions and others for them to remain compulsory for longer.
Gavin Williamson confirmed the government was planning to remove the measure at step three of its roadmap out of lockdown, which will be no earlier than 17 May.
Scientists, public health experts parents and teaching unions had written to him this week to warn that current rates of vaccination were not yet sufficient to fully mitigate the impact of transmission among children on infection rates in the community.
(March 8, 2021) Step 1, part 1
In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor.
(March 29, 2021) Step 1, part 2
In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed. The official stay at home order ends, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.
(April 12, 2021) Step 2
In effect from 12 April, non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and some public buildings such as libraries and commercial art galleries can reopen. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants, but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.
Also reopening are settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will still apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open, but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities is also allowed, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.
(May 17, 2021) Step 3
Again with the caveat "no earlier than 17 May", depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.
Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.
For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.
This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.
(June 21, 2021) Step 4
No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.
Peter Walker Political correspondent
But Williamson told the Daily Telegraph: “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 road map.”
Boris Johnson is expected to make the announcement as early as Monday, according to the newspaper.
Williamson added: “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.”
The letter urging Williamson to keep the requirement for masks in place until at least 21 June had been signed by leading scientists and public health experts from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter and UCL, among others. They joined forces with five unions representing teachers and other school staff and parents.
It pointed out that after schools fully reopened in England on 8 March, the number of children testing positive for Covid-19 increased, so that by the start of the Easter break the prevalence of infection was higher in school-age children than in any other age group.
Figures published by the Office for National Statistics on Tuesday showed school infection rates were down, with about 0.33% of pupils and 0.32% of staff in secondary schools testing positive for Covid-19 from mid to late March, compared with 1.22% and 1.64% in December.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University of London, who was among the signatories to the letter, reacted to news of plans to lift the rules on masks by warning about the spread of a Covid-19 variant from India.
“So the govt appears to be scrapping masks in secondaries – while delaying releasing information about B.1.617.2, which has been spreading in secondary schools + outbreak involving 100 children in Derbyshire … Data not dates?” she tweeted.
A Department for Education spokesperson said virus transmission in schools was continuing to drop and that new data showed a significant decrease in students and staff testing positive. Positive cases were isolating quickly thanks to a twice-weekly rapid testing programme, they added.