By Dewi Morris | Political Editor
On August 21, the World Health Organisation (WHO), issued guidance stating that children over 12 years old should wear a mask as should adults when they cannot maintain a distance of one meter.
This new guidance has been interpreted differently by the four nations in the UK.
What does this mean for different countries in the UK?
Following the guidance, on August 25, Scotland made it mandatory for pupils over 12 and for staff to wear face coverings in schools’ communal areas such as corridors, and for pupils over the age of 5 to wear masks on the school bus.
The same day, Northern Ireland issued a similar statement, making it mandatory for post-primary pupils and staff to wear masks in communal areas. While not mandatory, face coverings are strongly recommended on school transport.
England had announced face coverings would not be needed in schools, however, on August 26, English guidance was altered so masks are now compulsory in communal areas such as corridors in schools within ‘local lockdown’ areas. In other areas of England, the Department of Education advises against the use of face coverings, however, headteachers have been given the choice to decide themselves if they will implement wearing masks in their schools.
In Wales, the Welsh Government recommends that over 11’s wear masks when social distance cannot be maintained, including in schools and on school buses. However, the decision on whether or not to make face coverings compulsory has been handed to Welsh councils and schools.
Response to the decisions across the UK
Face coverings have become a dividing feature of post-lockdown life, anti-mask protests have appeared in cities like Birmingham, Dublin and Madrid.
While anti-maskers are a minority, implementing face coverings in schools remains a controversial issue.
Professor Russell Viner, a member of Sage (the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) told BBC2’s Newsnight that despite the WHO’s new guidance, “we don’t have the evidence this is useful.”
Despite a statement on Monday August 24, from a Number 10 spokesperson claiming there were “no plans” for a review into face coverings in school, on Wednesday August 26, England had changed their guidance following pressure from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and other teaching unions.
A poll of 6,000 school staff in England, before the summer holidays, found that a third believed the government approach in schools left them ‘at risk’.
England’s Minister for Education, Gavin Williamson, defended the Government’s approach, claiming they were listening to the “latest medical and scientific advice” and that they were taking “the most precautionary approach.” This has drawn criticism as a more precautionary approach can be seen in other countries such as Scotland and Northern Ireland, and internationally such as France who have made masks mandatory in schools.
Labour MP, Tulip Siddiq has accused the Government’s approach in England of not being “clear enough” and expressed that it “should not pass the buck to headteachers.” This criticism could also face the Welsh Labour Government who have taken a similar approach.
England’s U-turn has also attracted criticism from Conservatives. Tory MP, Huw Merriman, told BBC Radio 4, “My concern is that we just keep making this up as we go along.”
What is the picture in Wales?
Wales’ approach means that each county in Wales has different rules as to whether pupils must wear masks in communal areas and buses to school.
The map below shows the approaches taken in different counties. The data was correct as of August 2.
Most counties in Wales recommend wearing face coverings. Only three, Carmarthenshire, Wrexham and Merthyr Tydfil have made masks mandatory. Three counties have also ruled out the need for masks; Conwy, Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly.
Response to Wales’ approach
Wales’ varying approach between counties comes after the Welsh Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, insisted a “one-size-fits-all approach” would simply not work in Wales.
However, the approach has attracted criticism that the Welsh Government is passing the decision onto councils in an attempt to escape accountability on the issue.
Laura Doel, director of the teaching union NAHT Cymru, has called the approach “unacceptable” and has said “headteachers are not medical experts and the Welsh Government should not put them in this position.”
Ceredigion is one county that has decided on the unique approach of implementing the use of face coverings in schools depending on the individual school’s risk assessment policy.
Meinir Ebbsworth, Head of Schools Service for Ceredigion County Council, spoke to Gair Rhydd.
Mrs Ebbsworth defended the Welsh Government’s approach saying, “it is a very difficult area to mandate, as individual school sites, groups sizes and other factors differ from site to site, a ‘one size fits all’ approach in this particular context would be difficult.”
She also defended Ceredigion’s decision to avoid a blanket decision for the county and to vary their approach in accordance with the risk assessment of different schools. She explained that a blanket decision “would not be purposeful” as the context between schools would vary, for example “not all corridors are busy at all times.”
Plaid Cymru MS, Delyth Jewell, criticised the Welsh Government’s decision saying, “This is the latest example of the Welsh Government passing the buck rather than leading the way.”
Welsh Conservative MS, Suzy Davies, shared a similar sentiment claiming the Welsh Government is “putting the responsibility on the shoulders of schools and councils, while trying to absolve itself of responsibility for the decision.” The Conservative UK Government have, however, also passed the responsibility to headteachers in England.
Conwy’s Cabinet Member for Education, Julie Fallon, told Gair Rhydd; “I do believe that the Welsh Government should have made a decision about this. We have seen a number of times over the last few months a lack of clear direction and this just adds to the workload of local authorities and schools.”
Where does the science stand?
The latest from the WHO informs that secondary school pupils should wear masks when they cannot keep at least one meter apart.
This is of particular importance to the age group as professor of health psychology, Susan Michie, has revealed secondary-school-aged pupils can spread the coronavirus significantly more than primary-aged pupils.
Professor of behavioural science, Daniel Read, has also suggested that wearing a mask reminds us the pandemic is still happening and can reinforce good social distancing measures.
However, there is also the case against wearing masks in schools, a No10 spokesperson had announced before the government’s U-turn in England, that “face coverings could obstruct communication between teachers and pupils” and therefore be detremental to learning.
Only time will tell whether masks in schools will pay off, and whether one nation has taken the right decision over the rest.