Boris Johnson was today facing a furious backlash from Conservative MPs over his last-minute U-turn on face-coverings in school, with one backbencher calling on him to “get a grip on our scientists”.
Huw Merriman said the treatment of young people during the coronavirus pandemic had been an “absolute disgrace “ and the public was “sick and tired” of seeing advice constantly changing in a way that made it appear the government was “making it up as we go along”.
He warned that the new guidance that staff and students must wear masks in communal areas of secondary schools in lockdown areas like Manchester and Birmingham was “sending out the wrong message” that schools are unsafe, setting them on a “slippery slope” to mandating masks in the classroom.
And senior Tory Charles Walker – vice-chair of the influential backbench 1922 Committee – said an increasing number of Conservative MPs were “very worried” at the government’s ever-extending record of chopping and changing policy without debate, often in the wake of decisions taken by Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Meanwhile, the leader of teaching union NASUWT said it was “deeply regrettable” that the government had waited “until the last possible moment” to listen to concerns being raised about the need for face coverings in schools.
Patrick Roach said: “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.
“As many schools continue to work hard to prepare for the new term, many headteachers and teachers have continued to raise concerns about the practical difficulties they are experiencing in ensuring effective social distancing arrangements in classrooms and throughout their schools. It is vital for the safety of staff, pupils and the wider community that the government listens to and acts on those concerns.”
The new advice released late on Tuesday by education secretary Gavin Williamson – just days before schools in England and Wales open their doors to all students next week – gave headteachers elsewhere in England the discretion on whether masks are required.
The measures followed the announcement of more stringent measure by devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where face coverings are required in all secondaries. The Welsh government is expected to announce the result of a review by scientific advisers today.
Despite new advice from the World Health Organisation on 21 August that over-12s should wear face coverings where they cannot socially distance, the UK government held firm on its guidance that they were not needed in schools.
On Monday, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools is “not strong”. And as late as Tuesday morning, business secretary Alok Sharma took to the airwaves to say there were “no plans” to change guidance, only for Mr Johnson to signal an climbdown just hours later after coming under intense pressure from unions, school leaders and opposition parties.
Declaring himself “disappointed” by the U-turn, Mr Walker told Times Radio: “The government just cannot make this stuff up on the hoof, saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday. It’s just not acceptable.
“An increasing number of my colleagues are now very worried… [MPs] just basically end up scratching our heads. Things now just seem to change on a daily basis and there is growing concern that they tend to change three days after Nicola Sturgeon makes a decision.”
He added: “What we are in now are the biggest of policy issues, restricting people’s liberties and freedoms with very little science attached to it,” Mr Walker told Times Radio. “Let’s debate these issues on the floor of the House of Commons. We cannot continue to have government by edict, this has been going on for six months.”
Mr Merriman, MP for Bexhill & Battle and chair of the Commons Transport Committee, 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 I absolutely fundamentally feel that young people just need to be able to get on with their education, free of any encumbrance, and anything that sends a message out that it’s not safe in the corridor means that it can’t be safe in the classroom. It’s a slippery slope.
“My concern is that we just keep making this up as we go along.
“I think the government needs to get grip of our scientists. I’m sick and tired, and I think many people in the public are sick and tired, of the science just changing. We say we’re listening to the science – well why was the science saying something completely different beforehand?
“It’s baffling for many people, it’s causing uncertainty, it’s causing worry. People don’t know what the rules are anymore. How can the science change from one day to the next?There comes a point in time when policymakers have to get a grip on policy.”
Mr Merriman said it was time for ministers including Mr Williamson to “stop hiding behind the science which keeps changing”, adding: “We need the firm smack of government behind this, we need to send a message out the schools are a safe setting.”
And Tory MP Marcus Fysh tweeted: ““Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal, not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff.”
Mr Williamson defended the 11th-hour change in advice, telling BBC Breakfast: “We’ve constantly said that this is something that stays under review at all stages.
“This is only a very small number of areas where there are local lockdowns, where we felt that it is best to take the most careful and most cautions and most precautionary approach.”
The education secretary said the move was being taken in areas with local restrictions because of the importance of maintaining education in every part of the country.
But he said there was “no intention of extending it beyond that because… that isn’t what is required”.
And he said that there would be no return to the blanket closure of schools across the country, describing it as the “absolute last resort” in the case of a renewed surge of Covid-19 cases.
“We never expect to be in a situation where we’ll be closing all schools down across the country,” Mr Williamson told Today. “The very, very last thing that will ever be looked at as being closed is schools. It’s the absolute last resort.”
Calum Semple, professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, said that face coverings for children would become “part of the new normal”.
“It’s going to be interesting seeing how children make these fashion items and personalise them,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Prof Semple said that he thought face coverings were “the icing on the cake” in terms of preventing spread of the disease but the majority of infection control must be hand washing and social distancing.
“We can’t assume just because someone is wearing a mask that is going to take away all risk,” he added.
He said he did not think face coverings were necessary for younger children in communal areas, adding: “Children are much better behaved in a classroom supervised by a teacher than adults are in a pub around a pint of beer.”