Boris Johnson has dropped advice against the use of face coverings in English schools, in an 11th-hour U-turn after he came under pressure from unions, opposition parties and schools.
From 1 September, staff and pupils in secondary schools in local lockdown areas like Manchester and Oldham will be required to wear face coverings when moving around the building and in communal areas where social distancing is difficult to maintain. Masks will not be mandated in the classroom.
Elsewhere in the country, masks will not be obligatory but school leaders will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas if they believe that is “right in their particular circumstances”.
The last-minute changes came after the Scottish government ordered the use of face coverings in schools north of the border and Wales announced it was reviewing the policy.
Schools in England and Wales are set to resume lessons for all students on Tuesday, after five months away from the classroom for most.
But despite World Health Organisation advice issued on 21 August that over-12s should cover their faces in situations where they cannot maintain social distancing, the UK government’s advice remained that masks were not necessary.
Downing Street said on Monday that there were “no plans” to review the guidance. And as late as Tuesday morning, business secretary Alok Sharma insisted that “Public Health England do not recommend the wearing of face masks in schools … there is no current plan to review that particular guidance.”
But by lunchtime, Mr Johnson was signalling that a U-turn was on its way, as he came under growing criticism from unions, rival politicians and scientists, telling reporters during a visit to Devon: “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”