The UK education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has defended the government’s U-turn on pupils in England wearing face masks in schools after coming under fire from Conservative MPs over the move.
Just hours after the cabinet minister Alok Sharma said on Tuesday morning there were no plans to review the policy amid pressure from headteachers, the government performed an about-turn and said pupils would no longer be advised against using face masks in secondary schools.
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Instead, in places with high levels of Covid-19, such as lockdown areas including Greater Manchester, children in year 7 and above are now being advised to wear face coverings in school corridors where social distancing is more difficult.
The move – which came after Scotland confirmed secondary pupils must wear masks in communal areas, such as corridors, and on school buses from Monday – has prompted criticism from Conservative MPs, with one saying he is “sick and tired of the way that we are treating our young people”.
On Wednesday, Williamson – who has faced a bruising few weeks over his handling of the A-level and GCSE exams fiasco – claimed the government had been clear that guidance over the return of schools had always been under review, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We always listen to the best scientific and medical advice.”
Pressed on England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, saying on Monday that the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”, Williamson said: “You would always hope that politicians don’t take a dogmatic or brittle approach to anything.
“I think it’s incredibly important that on everything that we do that we actually look, and this has been our approach from the start, of taking a really careful cautious approach about welcoming children back into schools.
“And we’ve looked at some of those areas that are under local lockdown and what the prime minister has said and what I’ve said, and what every government minister has said, about the importance of getting every school open and that includes in areas that are subject to local lockdown because we don’t want to see those areas falling behind in terms of educational attainment because those schools aren’t open.”
Earlier on the programme, the senior Tory MP Huw Merriman said the government needed to “get a grip”.
“I think we need the firm smack of government behind this. We need to send a message out that schools are a safe setting,” he told the BBC, adding: “The worry is that if we’re saying it’s unsafe in the corridors, the next thing it’ll be unsafe in the classroom and that will really prove an impediment on people’s learning.
“And, quite frankly, as a Conservative MP that came into politics to try to help people’s life chances through school, I am sick and tired of the way that we are treating our young people.
“I feel it’s an absolute disgrace and I really feel the government needs to get a grip and just be certain, get on with it and inspire confidence rather than just completely changing its mind.”
Asked about Merriman’s comments, Williamson said: “That is why we’ve been absolutely clear that it isn’t necessary to be wearing face coverings in the overwhelming majority of education settings, in schools, whether it’s primary schools, whether it’s secondary schools.
“But what we are saying, where there’s a high transmission rate of coronavirus, where communities are subject to local lockdown, having that extra layer of protection on top of all the other layers of protection that we’ve already asked schools to put in place.”
The Tory backbencher Marcus Fysh was also among Conservatives critical of the move, tweeting on Tuesday afternoon before the policy shift was formally announced: “No @BorisJohnson this is utterly wrong. Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff.”
The policy U-turn came after the World Health Organization and Unicef, the UN children’s agency, said those aged 12 and over should wear masks to help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, “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”.