The Prime Minister has abandoned advice that pupils should not be wearing face coverings in secondary schools in England
The prime minister has performed his latest U-turn in the face of growing pressure from teaching unions, headteachers and medical experts.
Face coverings will become mandatory within communal areas and school corridors for those children who live in the towns and cities that are subject to stricter COVID-19 restrictions.
But while headteachers throughout the country will retain discretion over the use of face coverings in their schools in other parts of England, the government will be dropping the guidance saying that they face masks not be used.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, the UK’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that the U-turn was due to the government “listening” to a new set guidance on the matter from the World Health Organisation (WHO) despite the change in advice happening four days previously.
This comes after secondary school students in Scotland will have to wear face coverings throughout corridors, communal areas and school transport from next Monday. Scotland’s Education Secretary, John Swinney, has said that the new rules would apply to all pupils in aged over 12 in Scottish schools.
The WHO issued new guidance on 21 August, saying “children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area”.
Mr Williamson said: “We always follow and listen to the best scientific and medical advice, and that’s why we’re not recommending that face coverings should be mandatory right across the country in all schools.”
“Because the best scientific and medical advice says that isn’t necessary.”
Gavin Williamson described the new guidance from the WHO as an “extra precautionary measure” in order to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in some schools.
The change from the UK government in their advice to schools came late on Tuesday, hours after the Scottish government had recommended the wearing of face coverings in the corridors in secondary schools, and the devolved government of Wales has said that it was reviewing its own guidance on face coverings for students.
Northern Ireland’s government has updated its guidance on face masks to recommend that they be worn by teachers and students in the corridors of secondary schools, as well as other communal areas.
Asked if he and the prime minister had been bumped into action by the devolved administrations, Mr Williamson said: “What we’re recommending in terms of mandating the wearing of face coverings in communal areas in secondary schools is only in a very, very small number of areas in the country which are in local lockdown.”
“We recognise that there are added concerns in those communities about transmission.”
Labour has accused the UK government of having “passed the buck” to schools to decide on whether face coverings should be worn.
This comes after thirteen to fourteen-year-olds were less anxious during the nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown than they had been in October of last year, according to a survey from the University of Bristol.
But Mr Williamson said: “We’ve always had a system in this country where there is a lot of devolved responsibility for head teachers.”
“As you go around the whole school estate in this country, every school tends to be of a different shape and a different size.”
“We do recognise that head teachers will sometimes need to show an element of discretion.”