LONDON (AP) — The British government came under renewed pressure Tuesday to change tack and encourage high school students in England to wear face masks when they return to class next week, at least in communal areas such as hallways.
A day after the World Health Organization tweaked its guidance over mask-wearing by children, Scotland changed its advice, a move that's piled pressure on the other nations of the U.K. to follow suit.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government, which oversees schools in England, would back a change “in some contexts” if the medical evidence shows face masks help in the battle to contain the coronavirus.
“If we need to change the advice, then of course we will," he told reporters while on a visit to a shipyard in Devon in southwest England.
The main opposition Labour Party said there is a “growing body of evidence” to show that face masks in communal areas in secondary schools help protect students and staff. And a union representing school principals said it would be “prudent” for the government to review its guidelines in light of the change in Scotland and the new WHO advice, and that any change should be announced “sooner rather than later” given the imminent reopening of schools.
The debate has intensified after the WHO changed its guidance to recommend that children between the ages of 12 to 18 should wear masks when they can't socially distance and in areas of high transmission.
The advice of the British government is that face masks aren't necessary. It points to a recent report from Public Health England that showed very few virus infections during the partial reopening of schools for younger students in June.
The merits of face masks comes as the government tries to reassure nervous parents that their children will be safe when they return to school. Schools across the U.K. closed in March as part of the lockdown, meaning that many students haven't seen the inside of a classroom for nearly six months.
“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 well-being from not being in school, is far greater than the risk from COVID,” Johnson said.
The evidence from around the world is that children face less severe virus symptoms than do adults. However, they can be sources of transmission and governments around the world are grappling about how school reopenings will affect the virus' spread within families and in the wider community.
“In the absence of clarity, given the known detrimental impact of school closures, we must err on the side of caution in order to ensure that when schools reopen, they remain open," said Dr. David Strain, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter.
England's nearly 25,000 schools are due to reopen over the coming couple of weeks, and Johnson's Conservative government is focused on making sure the return goes smoothly following the recent exam grades fiasco. The furor, which eventually saw the government ditch a controversial algorithm used to determine results after exams were cancelled as a result of the pandemic, claimed its first casualty Tuesday with the resignation of Sally Collier, head of the exams regulator Ofqual.
Within the U.K., which has the highest virus-related death toll at nearly 42,000, Scottish schools reopened first, followed by those in Northern Ireland. Schools in England are Wales are due to reopen in September.
Two weeks on from the reopening of schools in Scotland, one school in the city of Dundee has already had to close following an outbreak, a development that appears to have been at the heart of the change in face mask advice.
Following on from the change in WHO guidelines, the Scottish government confirmed Tuesday it was giving “obligatory guidance” to high school students to wear face coverings when moving around schools from Monday.
“It is right we reflect that in our guidance,” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
Scotland has often led the way within the U.K. during the pandemic on the wider use of face coverings. It, for example, mandated their use in shops after they reopened a couple of weeks before England. The Welsh government also said that it was considering a change of policy for high schools in Wales.
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