A senior Tory has hit out at the government’s latest decision to reverse its guidance on face coverings in schools when students return next month.
Pupils in secondary schools in areas of England where there is a local lockdown will have to wear masks in corridors, while head teachers have been told they will have the “flexibility” to introduce face coverings.
The policy marks a U-turn on previous government guidance on managing the spread of coronavirus in schools – but Conservative MP Huw Merriman criticised the decision, warning that it was a “slippery slope”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think it’s the right decision because I think we need to send the message out that our schools are safe with the measures that they’ve been taking and will be taking.
I was clearly referring to the change in scientific advice on face masks in schools. One day, not necessary. The next day, the science demands it. It seems, from the Twitter hate, that anyone who dares to question scientists, and changing advice, is now viewed as a flat-earther. https://t.co/HSHNDogAcl
— Huw Merriman MP (@HuwMerriman) August 26, 2020
“I just absolutely fundamentally feel that young people just need to be able to get on with their education free of any encumbrance.
“Anything that sends a message out that it’s not safe in the corridor means that it can’t be safe in the classroom and we’re on a slippery slope.”
Merriman added: “My concern is that we just keep making this up as we go along. So, the WHO (World Health Organization) is not explicit about schools at all, it just states that they should reflect the national picture.
“Why is it that we’re changing it right now when we haven’t been talking about this before?”
Boris Johnson hinted hours before the updated guidance that masks could be introduced in secondary schools.
He said: "We'll look at the changing medical evidence as we go on, if we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
Tory MP Desmond Swayne also criticised the prime minister following the face masks announcement, tweeting: “Was Boris reprogrammed by aliens?—tweeting about increased fines; expanding compulsory masking; and all without debate or vote in parliament.
“What happened to the nice guy we voted for last December?”
Was Boris reprogrammed by aliens?—tweeting about increased fines; expanding compulsory masking; and all without debate or vote in Parliament
What happened to the nice guy we voted for last December?
— Desmond Swayne (@DesmondSwayne) August 25, 2020
The Department for Education insists that its recommendation against face coverings in secondary schools is still its policy for most of England – but schools will still be able to implement them in communal areas where social distancing is more difficult if they feel it is necessary.
“Protective measures” mean that masks in the classroom will not need to be enforced, the government guidance states.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said there were currently no plans to extend compulsory face masks to schools outside local lockdown areas.
He told TalkRADIO: “We've said to head teachers if there's specific areas of concern they can deal with, they have the ability to deal with that…
“Our focus is that we welcome back all children. We don't want to be in a situation where there's certain parts of the country where there are local lockdowns where people are overly concerned about their children returning.”
“Stricter guidance” on face coverings may apply to all schools ‘if the rate of transmission increases across the whole country’.
The government’s U-turn came hours after Scotland announced pupils in secondary schools would need to use them in corridors and communal areas from next week.
Northern Ireland has also advised masks for secondary school corridors, while a decision on whether to update the guidance in Wales is expected on Wednesday.
The change to the guidelines, which come into force in England from 1 September, comes after WHO advice recommended children over 12 should wear masks under the same conditions as adults.