British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday sought to reassure pupils about the risks of going back to school, after a policy reversal on facemasks sparked fresh questions about the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The government backtracked on its insistence that students in England should not have to cover their nose and mouth when they return to class from next week, amid concern about a rise in new infections.
The change is being seen as another policy u-turn, just weeks after ministers were forced to scrap the use of an algorithm which gave 17- and 18-year-olds lower-than-expected exam grades. On a visit to a school in central England, Johnson thanked students for enduring months at home because of the outbreak, which he said had helped the country get the disease under control.
“The risk to your health is not from Covid because after all, statistically speaking, your chances of suffering from that disease are very, very low,” he said. “The greatest risk you face now is of continuing to be out of school.”
The new guidance advises secondary school students aged 11-18 and staff to wear face coverings in corridors and communal areas, in places with local coronavirus restrictions. Teaching unions had called for the UK government, which is responsible for education in England, to follow Scotland, which has a separate education system, and already requires pupils to cover up between lessons.
But while welcoming the change, critics including the main opposition Labour party said ministers had shirked their responsibility by leaving enforcement to individual schools. Labour’s education spokeswoman Kate Green slammed a “half-baked U-turn” and said clearer guidance should have been given earlier.
Masks in English schools: UK govt under fire
Under-fire Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had insisted masks were not required in schools and Johnson’s office earlier this week said there was no plan to review the policy. But Williamson, widely blamed for the furore over exam results, on Wednesday said the government would now follow World Health Organisation advice for children aged 12 and over to wear masks.
“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,” he said on Wednesday. “I hope these steps will provide parents, pupils and teachers with further reassurance.”
Some 41,500 people have died in the coronavirus outbreak in Britain — the worst death toll in Europe — and the government response to the pandemic has been criticised. Ministers were accused of not reacting quickly enough, failing to ensure enough protective equipment for frontline health and social care workers, and over the testing regime.
London reversed policy on the wearing of facemasks in shops in England after initially saying they were not necessary, and was forced to backtrack on a planned reopening of primary schools in July. Education is a devolved issue for regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Older students in Northern Ireland will be asked to wear face coverings outside classrooms from next week. The Welsh Assembly in Cardiff is due to make its decision on Wednesday.