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Face covers are mandatory for adults in all kinds of public settings in the UK – but what’s the deal with children? Should they, or shouldn’t they, be wearing them?
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) advises that children under the age of 11 do not need to wear face coverings – although whether they do or not is ultimately up to parents.
Children under the age of three shouldn’t be wearing them at all, says Public Health England (PHE), as they could pose a health and safety risk.
Those aged 11 and over should be wearing them where it’s mandatory to do so – for example, on public transport, in shops and at visitor attractions.
Despite secondary school pupils being old enough to have to wear face covers in these settings, it’s likely they won’t be made to wear them at school in England unless they are in an area that’s under lockdown, in which case wearing face covers will be mandatory in communal spaces.
In Scotland, the picture is slightly different. Education secretary John Swinney told BBC Good Morning Scotland that secondary school students aged 12 and over will need to wear face coverings in corridors, communal areas and on school buses from next week, but not in classrooms. Meanwhile children aged five and over will need to wear face covers on school transport.
Wales has announced a review of the country’s stance on masks.
Education minister Nick Gibb previously said face covers are “not necessary” for staff and pupils when schools in England reopen next month. As long as schools put in place hygiene measures outlined in government guidance, face coverings will not be required to stop the spread of coronavirus, he said.
Child health professor Calum Semple, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), added the evidence for wearing masks in school was “fairly weak” and said there’s more of a risk from parents meeting at the school gates or going for coffee after dropping their kids off.
But the government has done a U-turn on its advice surrounding face covers in schools based on a change in guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) when it comes to kids wearing masks.
In the recently issued guidance, WHO advised children and adolescents aged 12 years or older to follow the same mask guidelines as adults, which means wearing them when they cannot guarantee at least a 1m distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.
Children who are in general good health can wear a non-medical or fabric mask as a form of source control, meaning it keeps the virus from being transmitted to others if they are infected and don’t show any symptoms. The adult who is providing the mask should ensure the fabric mask is the correct size and sufficiently covers the nose, mouth and chin of the child, WHO said.
Children should clean their hands for at least 20 seconds if using an alcohol-based hand rub, or at least 40 seconds if using soap and water, before putting on a mask.
They should also be taught how to wear the mask properly, including not touching the front of the mask and not pulling it under the chin or into their mouth, and should store the mask in a bag or container, WHO said.
For children aged between six and 11 years of age, it said a “risk-based approach” should be applied to the decision to use a mask – and said explicitly that children under five shouldn’t wear them.
Children aged six and over might be encouraged to wear a mask if there’s a local outbreak, for instance, but it’s also worth bearing in mind they might struggle to use it safely, or it might impact their learning or psychosocial development.
For immunocompromised children or for paediatric patients with cystic fibrosis or cancer, the use of a medical (not a cloth) mask is usually recommended, it said, but should be assessed in consultation with the child’s medical provider.
The use of masks for children of any age with developmental disorders, disabilities or other specific health conditions should not be mandatory, said WHO, which is in line with UK guidance.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.