Face masks introduced in English secondary schools to avoid ‘argument’ with Sturgeon
Boris Johnson told policy ‘not worth’ a row after First Minister had already made coverings compulsory in communal areas
ByThe Lockdown Files Team
1 March 2023 • 5:00pm
Nicola Sturgeon introduced face mask measures in schools north of the border before they were adopted in England CREDIT: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Face masks were introduced in schools for the first time
after Boris Johnson was told it was “not worth an argument” with Nicola Sturgeon over the issue, the Lockdown Files reveal.
Mr Johnson went ahead with the policy despite England’s Chief Medical Officer saying there were “no very strong reasons” to do so. It was one of the most controversial of the pandemic and was not finally ended in England until January 2022
– 16 months later.
Ms Sturgeon had already announced the compulsory wearing of face masks in corridors and communal areas
in Scottish secondary schools when, in August 2020, Mr Johnson asked for advice on whether they were necessary in England.
In WhatsApp messages, Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, appeared ambivalent when asked for his opinion. He said: “No strong reason against in corridors etc, and no very strong reasons for,” adding: “So agree not worth an argument.”
The following day, the Government announced that secondary school children returning to classes in September in areas subject to local lockdown would be required to wear face masks
in corridors and communal areas where social distancing was difficult to maintain. The policy was later extended to the classroom.
Third of a million pupils affected
The guidance at the time applied to a third of a million pupils in secondary schools in Greater Manchester, parts of Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Leicester. In other areas in England, schools were given the power to “recommend” face mask be worn in communal areas.
The decision prompted a backlash, with one head teacher complaining that “masks mean mayhem”.
The communications show how Mr Johnson appears to have been bounced into the decision after Ms Sturgeon introduced the change in Scotland on Aug 25, 2020. Schools north of the border begin the school year earlier than those in England.
Allowing devolved nations to set their own Covid policies is understood to be one of Mr Johnson’s pandemic regrets.
In a group WhatsApp on the same day, one week before schools in England were due to reopen. Mr Johnson wrote: “Folks, I am about to asked about masks in schools. Before we perform another u-turn can I have a view on whether they are necessary?”
Lee Cain, his director of communications, questioned why Downing Street would “want to have the fight on not having masks in certain school settings” while Simon Case, the permanent secretary for Covid who was promoted a week later to Cabinet Secretary, said “nervous parents will freak out” if children are wearing masks in Scottish schools but not English ones.
Mr Johnson’s administration had already decided that masks would not be worn in school settings, and there was no provision for it in guidance issued before the reopening.
But the then prime minister realised he would be confronted about it after the World Health Organisation recommended four days earlier, on Aug 21, that children aged 12 and over should wear masks in situations where they could not maintain social distancing
Ms Sturgeon then introduced the policy of secondary school pupils wearing masks in corridors and communal spaces.
Mr Cain told the PM: “Considering Scotland has just confirmed it will I find it hard to believe we will hold the line. At a minimum I would give yourself flex and not commit to ruling it out. Also, why do we want to have the fight on not having masks in certain school settings.”
He then said that unless Sir Chris and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, “are willing to go out and say WHO and Scots are wrong, I think some nervous parents will freak out about this happening in Scotland but not in England.”
Sir Chris replied a quarter of an hour later: “No strong reason against in corridors etc, and no very strong reasons for. The downsides are in the classroom because of the potential to interfere with teaching. So agree not worth an argument.”
Guidance had excluded schools
Sir Patrick said it made “logical sense” for children to wear masks in corridors and communal areas “where crowding cannot be avoided”, but a concerned Mr Johnson replied: “The trouble is that the current guidance specifically excludes schools. God knows why.”
Mr Johnson replied at 9.55am, 40 minutes after he had first raised the subject: “In order to allow schools to require face coverings in any part of the school we will now have to do a u-turn.”
In a sign of the policy disarray, Nick Gibb, the long-standing minister for school standards, had only that morning told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “masks are not necessary for staff or pupils”.
That evening Sir Gavin Williamson, the then education secretary, said the Government was not considering introducing face masks in schools because of his confidence in the “system of controls” already in place prior to reopening.
The next day, Sir Gavin said on the radio that ministers “always listen to the best scientific and medical advice” and concluded that masks
were an “extra precautionary measure”.
The new guidance, published on Aug 26, the day after the WhatsApp group messages, said staff and pupils in secondary schools in local lockdown areas were required to wear face masks when moving around the building and in communal areas where social distancing was difficult to maintain.
The guidance was later extended in February 2021, recommending the use of face masks in “all indoor environments”, including classrooms in secondary schools. It was withdrawn in May 2021, reintroduced in January 2022
to combat the rise of the omicron variant and then withdrawn again a little over a fortnight later.
The about-turn in August 2020 led to strong criticism of Mr Johnson’s government at the time. Katherine Birbalsingh, the head teacher of a school in north west London, tweeted: “Masks mean mayhem… [pupils] will be pulling each other’s masks, repositioning their own masks constantly, bullying each other over choice of mask etc. Add that to rise in chatter because teachers will not be able to hold kids to account for talking.”
Prof Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the policy “could spread the virus more” because children would be touching their faces in readjusting their masks.