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The government has performed its third policy U-turn in little more than a week – this time on whether pupils should wear face masks in English schools after they reopen next week.
HuffPost UK understands that face coverings will be mandatory from September 1 in secondary schools in areas of England that are under lockdown restrictions and that they will be discretionary in other areas.
A government source stressed that Public Health England guidance for schools had been based on masks not being needed as pupils in different year groups would not mix. The move was later confirmed by the Department for Education.
But the change in WHO guidance for young people over 11 had prompted the change for “communal” areas such as corridors where children may have no choice but to come close to other years.
They said: “It’s an optional extra for most areas. If heads want to do it, that’s ok. If it provides an extra layer of reassurance, and adds to the already rising parental confidence, then that’s good. Parents can rest assured the existing measures were already doing their job.”
The change in guidance comes after Scotland confirmed secondary schools north of the border would get “obligatory guidance” for pupils to wear face coverings in corridors and communal areas to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Elsewhere, London mayor Sadiq Khan was said to be “moving towards” students in the capital wearing face coverings when they cannot socially distance; Wales announced a review of the country’s stance; and the Oasis academy chain of 52 schools said it would give masks to pupils to wear between lessons.
While it has largely been welcomed, Labour described it as a “half baked U-turn”, arguing that masks should have been made compulsory in communal areas and that the buck had been passed back to schools.
Boris Johnson and other ministers had spent the week so far resisting pressure to follow suit and encourage the use of masks in English schools.
Earlier in the day, Johnson told reporters: “On the issue of whether or not to wear masks in some contexts – you know, we’ll look at the changing medical evidence as we go on.
“If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
On a visit to a school as recently as Monday, England’s education secretary Gavin Williamson told the media that he would not be following Scotland’s lead.
“We’re not in a position where we are suggesting [masks] because we think there is a system of controls that are in place in all schools for children to be able to return safely and for staff to be able to return safely,” he said.
Schools minister Nick Gibb had also said masks were “not necessary” for staff and pupils when schools in England reopen, so long as they put in place the hygiene measures outlined in government guidance in early July.
He was backed by child health professor Calum Semple, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). Semple said the evidence for wearing masks in school was “fairly weak”.
But announcing the change in advice on Tuesday, Williamson said: “Our priority is to get children back to school safely. At each stage we have listened to the latest medical and scientific advice.
“We have therefore decided to follow the World Health Organisation’s new advice. In local lockdown areas children in year 7 and above should wear face coverings in communal spaces.
“Outside of local lockdown areas face coverings won’t be required in schools, though schools will have the flexibility to introduce measures if they believe it is right in their specific circumstances.
“I hope these steps will provide parents, pupils and teachers with further reassurance.”
It is yet another instance of Boris Johnson’s government abruptly changing its mind on a major policy during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week alone, minister U-turned on A-level results – allowing teachers’ grades to be used instead of those calculated by a discredited algorithm – and evicting renters who have built up arrears during the pandemic, who will now get a four-week stay of execution.