The government announces the policy shift for England after Scottish pupils were told to wear face coverings in corridors.
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Boris Johnson has abandoned advice that pupils should not wear face masks in English secondary schools.
The prime minister performed his latest U-turn in the face of growing pressure from headteachers, teaching unions and medical experts.
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Face coverings will be mandatory in communal areas and corridors for children in towns and cities that are subject to stricter coronavirus restrictions.
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But while headteachers will retain discretion over the use of face masks in schools in other parts of England, the government will drop guidance that they should not be used.
On a visit to a school in Leicestershire on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said the government was following updated advice from the World Health Organisation – despite that shift happening four days ago.
The WHO issued new guidance on 21 August, saying “children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area”.
The prime minister also suggested the U-turn on face coverings had come following the experience of Scottish pupils, who have been back in schools since 11 August.
But he added it would be “nonsensical” to enforce the use of face coverings inside classrooms.
“On the issue of face coverings, what you’ve got is the WHO saying face coverings should be used by over-12s,” Mr Johnson said.
“What we’re saying is if you’re in a school where there is a ‘hot spot’ then it probably does make sense in confined areas outside the classroom to use a face coverings in the corridor and elsewhere.
“As they discovered in Scotland, where they’ve had the kids in for at least a couple of weeks now, what they found was that it was raining outside, people were coming in and they were congregating in the corridors and the move to face coverings they thought was sensible.
“What we are doing, following what the WHO have said, is we are saying, if you are in a hot spot area where there is a higher risk of transmission then face coverings in those types of areas outside the classroom.
“But not in the classrooms, because that is clearly nonsensical – you can’t teach with face coverings, you can’t expect people to learn with face coverings.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson earlier told Sky News the new advice was an “extra precautionary measure” to prevent the transmission of coronavirus in some schools.
The UK government’s change in advice came late on Tuesday – hours after the Scottish government recommended the wearing of face masks in secondary school corridors, and the Welsh government said it was reviewing its advice on face coverings for pupils.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland updated its guidance on face coverings to recommend they be worn by teachers and pupils in corridors and other communal areas of all secondary schools.
Asked if he and the prime minister had been bumped into action by the devolved administrations, Mr Williamson said: “What we’re recommending in terms of mandating the wearing of face coverings in communal areas in secondary schools is only in a very, very small number of areas in the country which are in local lockdown.
“We recognise that there are added concerns in those communities about transmission.”
Labour has accused the UK government of having “passed the buck” to schools to decide on whether face coverings should be worn.
But Mr Williamson said: “We’ve always had a system in this country where there is a lot of devolved responsibility for head teachers.
“As you go around the whole school estate in this country, every school tends to be of a different shape and a different size.
“We do recognise that head teachers will sometimes need to show an element of discretion.”
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The prime minister faces resistance to the move from within his own ranks, with Tory MP Marcus Fysh voicing his oppostion after it emerged the U-turn may be imminent.
“Masks should be banned in schools,” he said on Twitter.
“The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff.”
Officials announced another 1,184 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the UK on Tuesday – up from 853 on Monday – and 16 more deaths among people who had tested positive for the virus.