Labour’s Kate Green has called for the use of face masks in secondary schools to limit the transmission of coronavirus ahead of the return of children to classrooms across the country next week.
In a statement issued this afternoon, following the changing of the World Health Organisation’s guidance on masks last week, the Shadow Education Secretary demanded that the government “listen to this evidence”.
Her intervention follows reports from Tes earlier this afternoon that the government is set to make a major policy change by announcing that face masks will be “near-mandatory” in communal areas in secondary schools.
Commenting on the use of masks, Green said: “There is a growing body of evidence that the use of face masks in communal areas in secondary schools helps protect students and staff and drive down transmission.
“The Prime Minister must listen to this evidence and act quickly to give certainty to parents and teachers who are just days away from schools reopening.
“The last thing concerned parents and pupils need is another last minute U-turn from this government that throws school plans into chaos.”
The statement from Labour’s education spokesperson comes after SNP minister John Swinney announced this morning that everyone over the age of 12 should wear face coverings in school corridors, communal areas and school buses in Scotland.
The Secretary of State for Education in Scotland emphasised that the guidance to come into effect on August 31st is “obligatory”, not mandatory, and said that no pupil should be sent home for not wearing a mask.
The Welsh Labour government also announced this afternoon that it will be reviewing its guidance on whether face masks should be mandatory in schools ahead of children returning to classrooms next week.
Unions and teachers have complained about the lack of clarity on face masks in schools. General secretary of the ASCL Geoff Barton said today: “The guidance is silent on what schools should do if staff or pupils want to wear face coverings.”
Downing Street has insisted that there are “no plans” to change its current advice. Schools in England have been told that face masks are not necessary as children and students are mixing in consistent groups.
But Boris Johnson has said that he would “of course” change guidance on the wearing of face coverings in educational settings if there was “changing medical evidence” to suggest that they could limit transmission.
This latest intervention from the Labour Party follows the WHO updating its guidance on schools last week, saying that masks should be worn when one-metre distancing cannot be guaranteed and there is widespread transmission.
The UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty delivered a statement on the safety of children returning to the classroom at the weekend, in which he said that adults represented the biggest risk to staff.
Reacting to these comments on school staff, UNISON’s head of education Jon Richards said: “This acknowledgement of the transmission risk between staff in schools underlines why it’s vital they should be able to wear face coverings.
“It’s still unclear why government guidance won’t allow them, when they’re recommended for other workplaces.”
Green’s comments today follow those from Labour’s shadow minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning Toby Perkins, who said on Sunday that the party does not recognise the need for all children to wear face masks in schools.
He said: “On a localised basis there may be additional need for additional safeguards, but in general terms I agree that we should be able to see schools return safely without the need for face masks to be worn right across the school.”