Teaching union questions if ministers are following scientific advice on masks

School pupils (PA Archive)
16:56pm, Wed 26 Aug 2020
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A teaching union has questioned if the Government is following scientific advice or “prioritising political expediency” after a U-turn on face-covering advice for schools in England.

Updated guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) issued on Tuesday said that in areas under local lockdown, face coverings should be worn when moving around corridors and communal areas.

Teaching unions had previously urged clarity on wearing masks and sought reassurance for pupils, staff and parents ahead of schools reopening next week.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “It is deeply regrettable that the Government has failed to heed concerns until the last possible moment.

“The latest announcement on face coverings raises serious questions about whether the Government is seriously following the scientific advice or is simply prioritising political expediency in order to meet the Prime Minister’s wish to ensure that every school reopens fully at the start of term come what may.

“This latest Government U-turn will raise questions about the statement issued by the UK’s chief medical officers last Sunday that there is a low risk of coronavirus transmission in schools.”

In their joint statement on Sunday, the chief and deputy chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said children have an “exceptionally low risk of dying” from the disease.

The U-turn came after England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had also insisted measures being adopted by schools to limit the spread of coronavirus meant masks were not required.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said there was a “lack of confidence when ministers and senior medical advisers say different things for four days”.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

“This is no sort of assurance for the profession, parents or the public,” he said in a statement.

“The Government should have been looking at that WHO advice, coming to a considered position and then presenting it to the public. The alternative has been slow, incoherent and a failure of leadership.

“We welcome the steps now being taken but it is a halfway house to pass the decision to headteachers.”

Jon Richards, Unison head of education, welcomed the updated guidance, but added: “The focus on pupils is understandable but the Government has already admitted the biggest risk in schools is to staff.

“School staff who work closely with pupils, and move between classes and bubbles, have particular challenges.

“Schools should recognise these issues and allow those who want to wear coverings to do so.”

The Government announced on Wednesday that every school and college in England will receive 10 home test kits each, which are to be offered to individuals who may not be able to access a test elsewhere.

They will also receive a one-off distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), including clinical face masks, aprons, gloves, visors and hand sanitiser, provided by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

While school leaders’ union NAHT said schools receiving home testing kits was a “sensible move”, it said that schools will need a sufficient supply should there be a significant local outbreak.

James Bowen, director of policy, said: “In reality, most schools will have already sourced the PPE equipment that they require for next term.

“A one-off, small scale distribution obviously won’t do any harm, but to most schools it will likely feel a rather tokenistic measure.”

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the updated guidance would be welcomed by some headteachers.

He told BBC Breakfast: “We now know that if you are in an area of high risk you will have to wear a face covering if you are in secondary school.

“If you are not in a high area of risk, then it will be at the discretion of your school or your college.

“I think that kind of clarity which gives that flexibility will not be welcomed by everybody, but it will be welcomed, I think, by a lot of the headteachers and other senior leaders I represent.”

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