Schools: Geoff Barton discusses pupils wearing masks
Writing in today’s Sunday Express, he said children have missed out on “what should have been a carefree and exciting time of shared adventures and discoveries”. Mr Williamson said: “We must redouble our efforts to recoup this lost childhood”, adding: “Education is a birthright and children only get one shot at it”. His comments come as Chief Scout Bear Grylls, also writing in today’s paper, said many parents may feel childhood has been put on hold, with their child’s world “much smaller and bleaker”.
But, the 46-year-old adventurer, who has been Chief Scout since 2009, added that Scouts can show children “that we can get through this and come out stronger on the other side; that the world is waiting for them”.
Mr Williamson also insisted “schools didn’t suddenly become unsafe” and the reason schools closed to most pupils was “to reduce the need for people to leave their houses and stop the spread of the virus”.
He pledged the Government will take steps to ensure that Covid will not “define their childhood”.
As children prepare to go back to the classroom, the Education Secretary promised that additional safety measures will be put in place, including giving secondary school pupils three Covid-19 tests in the first two weeks, then weekly. It was announced today all families of schoolchildren will be offered free twice-weekly tests.
The Education Secretary says the Government will ensure Covid does not define students’ childhood
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Regular testing of households and childcare support bubbles of primary and secondary school children is another tool we are making available to help keep schools safe.”
Mr Williamson also backed the guidance that all pupils except primary school children should wear face masks in classrooms when it is not possible to keep to the two-metre rule, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Although not a legal requirement, the recommendation goes further than earlier advice which stated masks should be used in corridors and communal areas in parts of England under Tier 2 or Tier 3 restrictions.
This is a U-turn on advice last autumn when Downing Street rejected masks in class, with Boris Johnson saying the idea was “nonsensical” and No10 stated it “would obstruct communication between teachers and pupils”.
However, the Government was last night accused of breaking World Health Organisation guidance without evaluating the harms, including to either mental or physical health.
Mr Williamson backed the guidance that all senior pupils should wear face masks
Leading public health expert Professor Allyson Pollock said: “This is completely ludicrous.
“Parents and schools should challenge the Government and ask for the scientific evidence in support of masks and the studies showing the risks and benefits.”
Prof Pollock, director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science, added: “This is not about public health. Masks have become a political football.
“There has been no evaluation of this measure in schools which may well do more harm in spreading germs because masks worn in this setting will become nothing better than a dirty handkerchief, especially when the temperature changes and noses run.
“It’s disgusting. The analogy is that masks are like petri dishes of infection and risk spreading more germs.
Matt Hancock says regular testing is a tool being made available to help keep schools safe
“We need to ask ourselves, is this measure proportionate? Children are not the major drivers of coronavirus, community prevalence is falling – far better to ensure good hygiene and ventilation, including opening windows.”
Dr Elizabeth Evans, spokeswoman for the Medical Freedom Alliance, which campaigns for informed medical consent, said: “Studies of community-based mask wearing have shown they have no benefit in reducing transmission of coronavirus and if children are being forced to have a negative test before they go to school, what is the point in putting them all in masks?
“We already have an epidemic of anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts among teenagers who have been forced not to have normal interactions.
“They want to get back to their friends but forcing them to have repeated tests and wear masks is cruel and I fear some will go into despair.”
Liz Cole, co-founder of UsforThem, the grassroots schools campaign backed by tens of thousands of parents and pupils, said: “It is deeply concerning that with the introduction of face coverings in the classroom, something the PM himself said was ‘nonsensical’, secondary schools pupils are now returning to school under stricter restrictions than last autumn, despite the enormous progress made in protecting the most vulnerable through the vaccination programme.”
She added: “The Government must stop sacrificing children’s futures and either immediately reverse this recommendation or publish new scientific evidence to show it is justified and has been thoroughly evaluated.”
A Public Health England spokeswoman said: “As an additional precautionary measure, adults and students in secondary schools are asked to wear face coverings indoors, in classrooms and where social distancing is not possible.”