In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about Boris Johnson’s school face masks U-turn

PM angers Tory backbenches by changing policy for coronavirus hotspots just days before pupils start new academic year

Secondary school pupils in areas with high coronavirus infection rates will be ordered to wear face masks when they return to class, following a last-minute U-turn by the government. 

Boris Johnson announced last night that the previous guidance that face coverings should not be required in schools was being reversed, after “scores of headteachers broke ranks to urge their use, backed by Labour and trade unions”, The Guardian reports.

The new official advice on masks came “a day after Downing Street said that students would be safe without them” and has sparked “a backlash from Tory MPs over another policy reversal”, adds The Times

Why the change of heart?

Johnson had told reporters earlier on Tuesday that schoolchildren would not be forced to wear masks in high-risk areas, adding that he would “look at the changing medical evidence as we go on. If we need to change the advice then of course we will.” 

Hours later, the prime minister did just that, in the latest of a series of recent U-turns that have included the decision to use teachers’ predicted grades for A-level and GCSE results and the continuation of free school meals during the summer holidays.

Johnson had faced growing pressure to rethink the advice on masks after the authorities in Scotland said secondary school students there should wear face coverings in communal areas and on school buses.

The Welsh government is also reviewing its masks policy after World Health Organization (WHO) guidance was updated over the weekend. The UN health agency says that “that 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”.

Following Johnson’s announcement last night, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a statement confirming that in regions with high Covid levels, “defined as areas of national government intervention as listed on”, adults and pupils should wear face coverings when moving around the school and in communal areas where social distancing is difficult. 

The provision does not extend to classrooms, where “protective measures already mean the risks are lower, and where they can inhibit learning”, the statement continued.

“Nationwide, while the government is not recommending face coverings are necessary, schools will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas if they believe that is right in their particular circumstances.” 

And the reaction?

The change of heart was intended to “head off a growing row with unions and parents’ groups, who had suggested England should follow new advice” from WHO, says The Telegraph.

Senior government sources told the newspaper that the international health agency had made “a strong case” for secondary school children wearing face coverings. Both Public Health England and the DfE are understood to have approved Downing Street’s policy shift.

Parents and teacher groups have also welcomed the U-turn. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, had previously said that it would be “prudent” for the government to review its guidance.

John Jolly, chief executive of national parent-teacher association Parentkind, backed the move “as long as we are not moving into a situation where children are wearing face masks in the classroom”. The policy shift may reassure the estimated 25% of parents who were “very worried” about their children returning to classrooms, he added.

But Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, argues that while “parents and schools needed clarity and leadership”, the government has “just passed the buck back to them”.

“Face coverings should be compulsory in communal areas in schools. Instead of this half-baked U-turn, the government should have given clear guidance and a plan to deliver it,” Green added.

What about the mood among Tory backbenches?

A senior Tory MP “who is normally loyal to the government” told The Times that they were “disgusted and disappointed” by the latest announcement.

“It’s an utter, utter shitshow,” the unnamed MP said, adding: “It’s beyond comprehension why this wasn’t done earlier

“It’s mess after mess, U-turn after U-turn. Parents and teachers will lose confidence in the party. It’s a fundamental issue of competence, God knows what is going on. There is no grip, it’s bizarre.”

Summing up the mood, The Guardian says that “the change risks a major backlash from Conservative MPs, some of whom had publicly challenged [Johnson] not to change tack for schools in England”.

A Tory backbencher told the paper that the idea of pupils wearing masks in schools went “way too far”.

Meanwhile, Tory MP Huw Merriman said that the decision was a “slippery slope”. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Merriman said: “I Just absolutely fundamentally feel that young people just need to be able to get on with their education free of any encumbrance.”

Suggesting that the government is “making this up as we go along”, he added: “Anything that sends a message out that it’s not safe in the corridor means that it can’t be safe in the classroom.”

Marcus Fysh, Conservative MP for Yeovil, was equally blunt in his assessment of the situation.

“No Boris Johnson, this is utterly wrong,” Fysh tweeted. “Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal, not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff.”


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