Children treated as “afterthought” by ministers in pandemic, says Labour

Elliot Chappell
© James Jiao/

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson has argued that government inaction on improving ventilation in schools – following the recommendation of its own scientists – shows that children have been treated as an “afterthought” by ministers.

After a statement from Nadhim Zahawi today, the Shadow Education Secretary highlighted a recommendation from the scientific advisory group on emergencies (SAGE), made in a paper published 18 months ago, that special attention be paid to ventilation in schools.

The comments from Phillipson followed the announcement that face coverings would be introduced to the classroom. Zahawi told parliament this afternoon that the move will help reduce transmission amid surge of Omicron cases.

“It’s not ideal. It’s distracting for children at a time when they should be learning. I also know that it isn’t great for any child’s wellbeing, and I have commissioned staff in my department to conduct further research to better understand the negative effects of face coverings on education,” the Education Secretary said.

“But I have to strike a balance between the vital need to keep schools open and reducing infection. Face masks, and I quote, are a ‘price worth paying’ to keep kids where they belong. So for the shortest possible time, and not a day more, that’s what we will recommend.”

Zahawi added that he hoped the requirement for face coverings in classrooms could be dropped on January 26th, and told MPs that more than 350,000 carbon dioxide monitors had been delivered to schools to “manage ventilation”.

Phillipson also raised concerns over Covid test shortages despite government advice that parents should ensure their children are being tested in order to attend school.

Labour earlier this afternoon accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” after a surge in demand for Covid tests over the last few weeks resulted in the Welsh government lending NHS England an additional four million lateral flow tests.

Labour’s deputy leader argued that “getting testing right remains the best way to avoid further restrictions” and challenged Boris Johnson over his claim on December 13th that there was no shortage of rapid lateral flow coronavirus tests.

Head teachers raised concerns over the supply of lateral flow tests after an email from the government on Tuesday morning said orders for additional tests should be placed by 5pm the same day in order to secure deliveries next week – and if placed after 5pm, they would be not delivered until the week starting January 17th.

Labour has also highlighted today that the 7,000 air purifiers promised by ministers will not start arriving in schools and colleges until 620 days after SAGE first warned about the importance of ventilation for getting children back into school.

“Vaccination, ventilation and testing are key to ensuring children and staff can continue to learn together in school, but ministers are again falling short with a lack of tests, only half of eligible children vaccinated and just a fraction of the ventilation systems our schools need,” Phillipson said.

“Labour called for decisive action to be taken over the Christmas break to get these problems solved but the government has again failed to get ahead of the virus.

“We’ve got a new Education Secretary, a new team of government ministers, but our children are still being treated as an afterthought with chaotic, last-minute announcements hampering their education. It is incompetent, complacent, and inadequate.”

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