Teaching unions have urged the government to make face masks mandatory for secondary school children when schools finally reopen in September.
Ministers currently have no plans to make pupils or school staff in the UK wear masks when they return to school after the summer holidays, with the government conceding that face masks in primary school classes were pointless for protection as the teachers and children spend so much time together.
However, as secondary school children tend to move about more and have lessons with different teachers throughout the day, unions have claimed that the government’s position is “out of step” with the decision to make masks mandatory in shops, supermarkets and train stations – saying that teachers are not given the same amount of protection as other workers.
The GMB union said that there was a “clear double standard” in guidance which said face masks are compulsory anywhere where social distancing is difficult, while NASUWT have pointed out that guidance to other employers recognises that “face masks should be worn” where physical distancing “cannot be assured”.
Some schools in England have already taken matters into their own hands and advised parents to buy their child a face mask as part of their school uniform.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) union, said: “Teachers and other staff working in schools also want to be assured that, when they return to the workplace in September, they will be afforded the same level of protection as other workers, and that the guidance for schools will be brought into line with guidance for other workplaces.”
GMB’s national officer Karen Leonard said: “Changing the rules for buses and shops to enforce the wearing of masks while actively discouraging those working in schools from even wearing them is causing untold confusion.
“It’s time for Gavin Williamson and his colleagues to rethink their position, provide clarity and consistency for our valuable school staff, and ensure PPE (personal protective equipment) – including face masks – is available and can be worn by staff in schools where required.”
The Department for Education says that the wearing of a face mask or covering in schools and other education settings is not recommended, although their guidance states that face coverings may be beneficial for short periods indoors where strangers are standing near each other.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week that face masks were ineffective when people are interacting regularly, and ruled out making them mandatory in offices and schools.
Replying to reports that face masks could be necessary at work, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “No, that isn’t going to happen, and the reason is that in offices you tend to spend a lot of time with the same people, and so the way to stop the spread of the virus in offices is to have social distancing, either two metres or one metre plus mitigations in place.
“The same is true in classrooms, by the way, where if you’re in a classroom, if you’re in a space with the same people repeatedly and for long periods of time, whether an office or a classroom, then a mask doesn’t actually protect them.
“Where the masks benefits is from you spreading the disease to other people when you have relatively short interactions with lots of different people, which is why it’s right to have this as mandatory on public transport, in shops and in the NHS but not in offices where you’re basically there with the same group of people for long periods of time, or in classrooms where the same applies. So it’s following the scientific advice.”