3 ministers, 1 radio show, 2 very different messages: How Boris Johnson's face mask U-turn happened

Gavin Williamson, left, defended the government's school face mask U-turn on Wednesday after fellow ministers Alok Sharma, centre, and Nick Gibb, right, had previously said masks would not be necessary.
Gavin Williamson, left, defended the government's school face mask U-turn on Wednesday after fellow ministers Alok Sharma, centre, and Nick Gibb, right, had previously said masks would not be necessary.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Boris Johnson’s government has faced constant accusations of mixed messaging.

Critics would argue this has been encapsulated with the numerous U-turns Downing Street has performed during the pandemic.

The latest happened on Tuesday night, when the government announced face masks should be worn by secondary school pupils and staff in local lockdown areas of England.

However, this was contrary to what ministers had previously been telling the public.

On Monday and Tuesday morning, two ministers appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme explaining why masks were not necessary in schools – followed by education secretary Gavin Williamson defending the U-turn on the same show on Wednesday morning.

COALVILLE, ENGLAND  - AUGUST 26: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing the school tie he was presented with on arrival, during a visit to Castle Rock school on August 26, 2020 in Coalville, United Kingdom. (Photo by Jack Hill - WPA Pool/ Getty Images)
Boris Johnson's government has faced constant accusations of mixed messaging during the pandemic. (Getty Images)

Here is what all three ministers told the Today programme on consecutive days...

1. School standards minister Nick Gibb, Monday

“What the current advice is, is that if a school puts in place the measures that are in the guidance that we issued in early July – all the hygiene measures that I’ve been talking about – then masks are not necessary for staff or pupils.

“We always listen to whatever the current advice is from Public Health England [PHE], the chief medical officers. We always adhere to that advice, and it’s that advice that drives the content of the guidance that we give to schools.”

2. Business secretary Alok Sharma, Tuesday

“Throughout this process, we have followed the scientific and medical advice of experts. PHE doesn’t currently recommend face coverings in schools. The reason is, pupils and staff mix in consistent groups.

“We have provided guidance working with PHE in terms of how schools can be kept safe, how they can be COVID secure. We are always considering the latest advice and evidence but PHE’s current advice is that it’s not recommended to wear face masks in schools.”

PHE is the government agency that is being axed, with ministers having previously been accused of using it as a scapegoat for Downing Street’s perceived failings during the pandemic.

3. Education secretary Gavin Williamson, Wednesday

“At every stage we always listen to the best scientific and medical advice. We always, all the way through this process… [were] clear about the fact that this was something that was going to be constantly under review.

“Having looked at the World Health Organization [WHO] report, we felt it was important [that] as well as all the protections we’ve already got in place – and teachers and headteachers and support staff have been putting in place all over summer – that there were a small number of secondary schools that are in local lockdown areas that it was useful and important to have that extra layer of protection.”

The WHO advice Williamson referred to had been released on Friday. It called for all school pupils over 12 to wear masks.

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster, London, following the announcement that A-level and GCSE results in England will now be based on teachers' assessments of their students, unless the grades produced by the controversial algorithm are higher. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Education secretary Gavin Williamson (PA Images via Getty Images)

Has this mixed messaging happened before?

Yes. Within the past two weeks, in fact, and also related to schools.

On 13 August, 40% of A-level pupils found they had been downgraded as a result of a controversial algorithm which aimed to standardise predicted results.

On 15 August, Williamson told The Times there would be no U-turn on the grading system.

On 17 August, that U-turn happened as it was announced the algorithm would be scrapped for those who had been downgraded, with results instead awarded based on teachers’ predicted grades.

Students march to the constituency office of their local lawmaker, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, in South Staffordshire, England, Monday Aug. 17, 2020.  Students are protesting over the government's handling of A-level results, using an algorithm to work out marks, with many students receiving lower than expected grades after their exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus restrictions. (Jacob King/PA via AP)
Students march to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson on 17 August, hours before the government's A-level results U-turn. (PA via AP)

There has also been mixed messaging – and a subsequent U-turn – over the use of face masks by the general public.

On 28 April, the Scottish government issued a recommendation for people to use face coverings while food shopping and using public transport. Health secretary Matt Hancock, questioned on the matter at that day’s Downing Street press conference, spoke out against the “weak science”.

On 30 April, however, Boris Johnson suggested the government would soon advise wearing face coverings in public.

The advice was officially recommended by the government in its coronavirus recovery strategy released on 11 May.

Face masks eventually became compulsory on public transport on 15 June, and in shops on 24 July.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing a black face mask featuring a number '10', due to the COVID-19 pandemic, talks to the owner of the the Cycle Lounge, Rodney Rouse, a bicycle repair shop in Beeston, central England, on July 28, 2020, during an event to launch the the government's new cycling intuitive to help get people fitter. - The British government promised Monday to build thousands of miles of new bike lanes to get people moving and healthy after months of coronavirus lockdown. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pledge comes on the heels of a plan to force restaurants to display calories on menus as part of a broader effort to win the battle of the bulge. (Photo by Rui Vieira / POOL / AFP) (Photo by RUI VIEIRA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson wearing a face mask. (AFP via Getty Images)

Is this mixed messaging causing problems?

The government’s opponents certainly think so.

Responding to the school face mask U-turn on Tuesday night, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner claimed it was the “latest shambles” from Downing Street as she said parents need “clarity and leadership”.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green added: “Instead of this half baked U-turn, the government should have given clear guidance and a plan to deliver it.”

There are also signs Tory backbenchers are starting to lose patience.

One, Huw Merriman, told the Today programme on Wednesday: “My concern is that we just keep making this up as we go along.

“Why is it that we’re changing it right now when we haven’t been talking about this before?”

What are the government’s supporters saying?

One Tory MP, Marcus Fysh, said the face mask decision wasn’t even a proper U-turn as it only applies in local lockdown areas.

He told PA: “I am reasonably comfortable now with where the government is, because I can see that in areas where there is widespread transmission, they want to still be able to have schools operating.”

One Downing Street aide was also quoted by Politico explaining the government’s position: “It’s a pandemic and a brand new disease we’re learning about every day.

“We have to evolve and adapt to new advice and understanding all the time to protect people’s health in the UK.”

Furthermore, the government’s U-turns don’t appear to have harmed its standing with the electorate.

A YouGov poll carried out on Monday and Tuesday found support for Johnson’s Conservatives has increased by 3% to a 43% share. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour dropped by 2% to 36%.

Coronavirus: what happened today

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