Boris Johnson has hinted that guidance which says face coverings are not required for students in England’s schools could be changed amid reports that a U-turn has already been agreed by the Government.
It follows growing pressure on ministers from teaching unions to review the guidance, while Holyrood confirmed secondary school pupils in Scotland will be required to wear face coverings in between lessons from Monday.
According to reports by the Tes, both Public Health England and the Department for Education (DfE) have signed off on a policy that wearing face masks will be near-mandatory in communal areas of secondary schools.
Citing sources, the publication said that the announcement on England’s schools could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Johnson told reporters that the Government will “look at the changing medical evidence as we go on”, adding: “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
Asked why ministers were ignoring World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks, he said: “The overwhelming priority is to get all pupils into school.
“And I think that the schools, the teachers, they’ve all done a fantastic job of getting ready and the risk to children’s health, the risk to children’s wellbeing from not being in school, is far greater than the risk from Covid.
“If there are things we have to do to vary the advice on medical grounds, we will, of course, do that.
“But as the chief medical officer, all our scientific advisers, have said, schools are safe.”
It comes as schools said they would provide pupils with masks and visors to wear in between lessons, while local authorities suggested that it would be up to headteachers to make the decision on whether they are required.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said there was a “growing body of evidence” that face coverings in communal areas would protect students and drive down transmission.
“The Prime Minister must listen to this evidence and act quickly to give certainty to parents and teachers who are just days away from schools reopening,” she said.
“The last thing concerned parents and pupils need is another last minute U-turn from this Government that throws school plans into chaos.”
Meanwhile, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said his team was speaking with officials in Scotland to ensure the capital has the “most up-to-date advice” ahead of schools reopening.
"… if there is going to be any U-turn by the government that it does this sooner rather than later because the start of the new term is imminent." See our full comment on face coverings here https://t.co/tGT5FOdH3K pic.twitter.com/GU2uZ6FP2o
— ASCL (@ASCL_UK) August 25, 2020
Holyrood’s Education Secretary John Swinney confirmed on Tuesday that secondary schools in Scotland will be given “obligatory guidance” that pupils should wear face coverings in corridors and communal areas.
Some hours later, Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said he hoped to make an announcement on whether schoolchildren will be made to wear face coverings by the end of Wednesday.
Teaching unions have urged Westminster to keep the guidance under review as evidence continues to emerge.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “We have to stay abreast of the science, so when the World Health Organisation says that children over 12 should wear masks in communal areas at school, that ought to be listened to.”
Following the decision in Scotland, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said parents, pupils and staff needed reassurance.
“We have two concerns,” he said in a statement.
“First: parents, pupils, and staff will be anxious about the situation and need reassurance from the Government about the public health basis for its policy over face coverings in England, rather than it being left entirely to schools to explain the Government’s rationale.
“And, second: if there is going to be any U-turn by the Government that it does this sooner rather than later, because the start of the new term is imminent.”