Lifting the recommendation that face coverings be worn in secondary classrooms this month will have “consequences” for the health of children and parents, a group of unions and scientists has warned.
Teaching unions the NEU and NASUWT and support staff unions Unite, Unison and the GMB have sent an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, co-signed by around 20 scientists and public health professionals, five of whom are members if the “Independent SAGE” group.
In the letter, they warn that face coverings are “an essential part of the wider system of control in schools”, and said they should continue to be required in secondary classrooms until at least June 21.
Masks have been recommended in secondary classrooms since schools reopened more widely on March 8. The government initially said it would review the rule in the Easter holidays, but opted to continue to make the recommendation until May 17 at the earliest.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, told MPs last week he hoped the government would be able to relax the recommendation from May 17, but said this decision would be based on scientific advice as part of the government’s wider roadmap out of lockdown.
In the letter, unions and scientists pointed out that they were “not aware of any plans to lift face covering requirements in relation to shops or transport, where people generally spend less time in close contact with large groups” than in schools.
They also warned that while a “significant proportion” of the population has at least received a single dose of vaccine, “this is not sufficient to fully mitigate the impact of transmission among children on infection rates in the community”.
“To strip these necessary protections, when there are already too few mitigation measures in schools, and when rates of Covid-19 are still significant would have consequences for the health of our children and their parents as well as their communities.”
Fears about new variants
They also pointed to reports of outbreaks of Covid-19 variants linked to schools in Telford and Leicester, as well as a rise in Covid infection rates among children seen after schools reopened in March.
The latest Office for National Statistics Covid infection survey shows that rates among school-aged children fell between the end of March and April 24.
But the union letter warned that the decline in prevalence coincided with the Easter holiday period, and followed an initial rise.
“It is extremely worrying that we saw such marked case rises over March among children, given that schools were only open for a few weeks, and with mitigations such as mask wearing in place for secondary school children (although only recommended when distancing could not be maintained).”
The letter also warns about the impact of so-called “long Covid” on children.
ONS data published earlier this year showed that around 13 per cent of primary school age children and around 15 per cent of those aged 12 to 16 reported at least one Covid symptom five weeks after infection.
The letter goes on to urge the government to “consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools when making decisions about face coverings in school”.
“These should be continued in schools after May 17, with review prior to the next stage of the roadmap on June 21.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is expected that face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms at step 3 of the roadmap, which will be no earlier than May 17.
“The lifting of further restrictions at step 3 will follow a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, and all other school safety measures, including regular asymptomatic testing, will remain in place.”
Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London, UK
Prof. Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK; Independent SAGE, UK
Prof. Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology, University College London, UK; Independent SAGE, UK
Prof. Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research, University College London, UK; Independent SAGE, UK
Prof. Stephen Reicher, Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Social Psychology, University of St. Andrews, UK; Independent SAGE, UK
Dr. Hisham Ziauddeen, Consultant Psychiatrist, Cambridge & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, UK
Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford
Dr Zubaida Haque, Member of Independent SAGE and former interim director of Runnymede Trust
Dr Kit Yates, Co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology, University of Bath, UK
Dr Zoë Hyde, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
Dr Sarah Rasmussen, Department of Pure Mathematics & Mathematical Statistics, University of Cambridge, UK
Dr Bharat Pankhania, University of Exeter, UK
Prof. Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Birmingham
Dr. Alison George, GP, Newcastle, UK
Dr. Peter English, Public Health Physician, UK
Dr. Sakkaf Ahmed Aftab, Chair BMA Yorkshire Consultant Committee, UK
Dr Christine Peters, Consultant Microbiologist NHS Glasgow, UK
Dr Eilir Hughes. General Practitioner and co-founder of FreshAir.Wales
Dr Huw Waters. Materials Scientist and co-founder of FreshAir.Wales
Prof. Elizabeth Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction, Loughborough University, UK; Independent SAGE, UK
Prof. Robert West, University College London, UK
Prof. John Drury, University of Sussex, UK
Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute, CovidActionGroup, Endcoronavirus.org