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Johnson insists schools are safe amid pressure to introduce face mask rules

Owen Humphreys

By Emma Bowden, David Hughes and Lewis McKenzie, PA

Boris Johnson has insisted “schools are safe” as the UK Government faces increasing pressure to review its guidance on pupils in England wearing face coverings between lessons.

But the Prime Minister said the guidance, which currently does not recommend masks being worn in schools, could be altered if the medical advice changed.

It comes after Holyrood’s Education Secretary John Swinney confirmed that secondary schools in Scotland will be given “obligatory guidance” that pupils should wear face coverings in corridors and communal areas.

Meanwhile, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is said to be “moving towards” students in the capital wearing face coverings when they cannot socially distance in schools, a source told the PA news agency.

Asked why ministers were ignoring World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks, Mr Johnson said: “The overwhelming priority is to get all pupils into school.

“And I think that the schools, the teachers, they’ve all done a fantastic job of getting ready and the risk to children’s health, the risk to children’s wellbeing from not being in school, is far greater than the risk from Covid.

“If there are things we have to do to vary the advice on medical grounds, we will, of course, do that.

“But as the chief medical officer, all our scientific advisers, have said, schools are safe.”

Mr Johnson told reporters on Tuesday that the UK Government will “look at the the changing medical evidence as we go on”, adding: “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”

A Number 10 spokesman said on Monday that there were “no plans” to review the guidance on face coverings in England’s schools, but teaching unions have urged Westminster to keep it under review as evidence continues to emerge.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “We have to stay abreast of the science, so when the World Health Organisation says that children over 12 should wear masks in communal areas at school, that ought to be listened to.

“As things currently stand in England, the NEU believes it should be permissible for staff members and students to wear face masks if they wish to do so.”

Following the decision in Scotland, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said parents, pupils and staff needed reassurance from the Government.

“It would be prudent in the light of the decision in Scotland over face coverings in schools, and the recent guidance by the World Health Organisation, for the Government in Westminster to review its existing guidance that face coverings are not required in schools in England, and provide clear direction one way or another,” he said.

“We have two concerns. First: parents, pupils, and staff, will be anxious about the situation and need reassurance from the Government about the public health basis for its policy over face coverings in England, rather than it being left entirely to schools to explain the Government’s rationale.

“And, second: if there is going to be any U-turn by the Government that it does this sooner rather than later, because the start of the new term is imminent.”