Boris Johnson has told schools in England to end the wearing of face masks by pupils, as parents and teachers continued to report infections spreading within schools at a rapid rate.
Johnson’s demand to “follow the latest guidance”, made through his No 10 spokesperson, came after headteachers at secondary schools across England said they would encourage their students to keep wearing masks despite the government withdrawing advice for them to be worn in classrooms.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said: “Children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic and we recognise the impact it has had on their education. The prime minister believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom and the prime minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance.
“We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from 27 January.”
Johnson’s intervention is likely to further confuse the issue, with school leaders pointing out that official guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) specifies that masks can still be required in schools. The DfE’s advice to parents, updated on Thursday, states: “Your nursery, school or college might advise you that face coverings should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms (by pupils, staff and visitors, unless exempt).”
Meanwhile, the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, told Conservative MPs that he had agreed with directors of public health to consult with him over reintroducing face masks in schools in the event of “extraordinary” local outbreaks, “so that we can assess evidence and data to ensure any extra measures are proportionate”.
The Welsh government said it intends to retain face masks in secondary schools and colleges for another month. Mark Drakeford, the first minister, said pupils in Wales are likely to wear masks in classrooms until at least the February half-term.
The prime minister’s comments come as it was announced there were 95,787 new cases of Covid-19 reported in the UK on Friday, down from 107,364 the day before. A further 288 people have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
But headteachers who spoke to the Guardian said that they were not seeing a drop in cases among students despite the improved picture nationally. Shuttleworth College in Burnley was among the schools that told parents they would be retaining masks owing to high numbers of Covid infections.
Jonathan Hopkins, the head of Barton Court grammar school in Canterbury, told parents that pupils should continue wearing face masks for another week in order to protect staff from infections in every year group of pupils.
Primary schools have been especially hard-hit, with the most recent data from the UK Health Security Agency showing new Covid cases among schoolchildren in England rose 41% in the space of a week, to 1,936 cases per 100,000 five- to nine-year-olds.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said “simplistic” statements from the government could jeopardise efforts to tackle outbreaks in schools.
“No one want to see masks worn in schools for longer than is necessary. But it is important to remember that some schools are still dealing with very high levels of Covid in their communities, which is in turn leading to high levels of pupil and staff absence,” Whiteman said.
“Simplistic public messaging from the government really is not helping matters. As the government’s latest guidance makes clear, Covid measures may vary between regions and local public health directors have been given authority to reintroduce face masks in communal spaces when they feel that is required. The government has a duty to be clear with parents on this.”
Johnson’s comments steered clear of any threats against schools that retained mask wearing for pupils, with the DfE having no obvious legal powers to enforce its guidance.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government’s own guidance says that directors of public health may advise that face masks are needed in classrooms in response to local circumstances, but schools are unlikely to have had any time in which to consult them, or in which to communicate the changes with parents and staff.
“It is therefore not surprising if some schools have continued to use face masks for the time being while they resolve these issues.”