It will be mandatory for pupils to wear face masks in communal areas of secondary schools in England in places with local lockdowns, Britain’s education minister Gavin Williamson said on Wednesday in a government U-turn on enforcing their use.
After failing to persuade schools to bring back all students before the summer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is keen to make sure the reopening now happens as he urges people to get back to some kind of normality after the coronavirus lockdown.
Ministers had ruled out the need for pupils to wear masks in corridors despite updated advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) at the weekend, but Wednesday’s move shifted that stance.
“There are some areas of the country where we have had to do local lockdowns and we think it is right in those few areas that in secondary schools, in communal areas, that youngsters do wear face coverings,” Williamson told Sky News.
On a school visit in central England, Johnson later told students: “The risk to your health is not from COVID … the greatest risk you face now is of continuing to be out of school.”
“That is why in the next week, in the succeeding days, we must have every pupil back in school in the way that you’ve come back to school,” he said.
Headteachers in other areas will also have the discretion to recommend using masks in their schools for students aged between 11 and 18.
It is the latest U-turn by Johnson’s government which has come under fire for its handling of the pandemic and after a debacle this month when an algorithm-based system saw swathes of pupils awarded lower-than-expected exam grades.
The change on stance on masks also marks the latest occasion when Johnson has followed the devolved Scottish government in revising pandemic rules, after changes to the grading of exams and enforcing face coverings in shops.
Huw Merriman, chairman of parliament’s transport select committee and a member of Johnson’s party, said it felt like the government was making it up as it went along.
“It’s time we stopped hiding behind the science, which keeps changing, and we focus on the fact that we are in charge,” he told BBC Radio.
Williamson, who apologised after the exam grade problems, said the shift on masks had come following the change in WHO advice.