In August 2020, as schools prepared for the return of pupils – many for the first time in six months – No. 10 performed a succession of U-turns on the wearing of masks in schools.
The initial advice was that “masks could impede communication between teachers and staff and have little health benefit”, but with teaching unions piling on pressure and the Scottish government deciding to recommend masks in their classrooms, the advice changed at the end of August. Masks became recommended in communal areas but not in classrooms because, in the words of then PM, Boris Johnson, “that is clearly nonsensical – you can’t teach with face coverings; you can’t expect people to learn with face-coverings.”
By March 2021, though, the Department for Education had recommended that all secondary school pupils wear a mask in class. As Matt Hancock (then Health Secretary) later pointed out when justifying his own infringements of Covid regulations, this was guidance not law, but most schools understood it to be a requirement and headteachers refusing to comply with the ‘guidance’ were pressured to conform. Consequently for most students the implementation occurred as if it were a legal requirement.
Astonishingly for someone who professed to ‘follow the science’ at all times, Matt Hancock has now suggested in his serialised diary extracts that the introduction of masks in classrooms was driven exclusively by crude political considerations, and to have had no grounding in assessments of risk, efficacy or safety.
Nicola Sturgeon blindsided us by suddenly announcing that when schools in Scotland reopen, all secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms. In one of her most egregious attempts at one-upmanship to date, she didn’t consult us. The problem is that our original guidance on face coverings specifically excluded schools. Cue much tortured debate between myself, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and No. 10 about how to respond. Much as Sturgeon would relish it, nobody here wants a big spat with the Scots. So, U-turn it is.
Given the scale and speed of this U-turn, and in view of the Government’s dogmatic insistence on following the science, one might reasonably assume that once forced into this decision there would have been a concerted effort to establish the evidence and to assess the science-based health risk.
UsForThem asked repeatedly through this period for the DfE to confirm the evidence basis for its policies on masks in schools, and latterly for the Department to produce any evidence that it had carried out a risk assessment prior to those decisions, or for confirmation simply that someone somewhere in Government had evaluated the harms and benefits of the policy for the millions of children it had impacted. Our requests were variously ignored or avoided.