In August 2020, as schools prepared for the return of pupils – many for the first time in six months – No. 10 performed a succession of U-turns on the wearing of masks in schools.
The initial advice was that “masks could impede communication between teachers and staff and have little health benefit”, but with teaching unions piling on pressure and the Scottish government deciding to recommend masks in their classrooms, the advice changed at the end of August. Masks became recommended in communal areas but not in classrooms because, in the words of then PM, Boris Johnson, “that is clearly nonsensical – you can’t teach with face coverings; you can’t expect people to learn with face-coverings.”
By March 2021, though, the Department for Education had recommended that all secondary school pupils wear a mask in class. As Matt Hancock (then Health Secretary) later pointed out when justifying his own infringements of Covid regulations, this was guidance not law, but most schools understood it to be a requirement and headteachers refusing to comply with the ‘guidance’ were pressured to conform. Consequently for most students the implementation occurred as if it were a legal requirement.
Astonishingly for someone who professed to ‘follow the science’ at all times, Matt Hancock has now suggested in his serialised diary extracts that the introduction of masks in classrooms was driven exclusively by crude political considerations, and to have had no grounding in assessments of risk, efficacy or safety.
Nicola Sturgeon blindsided us by suddenly announcing that when schools in Scotland reopen, all secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms. In one of her most egregious attempts at one-upmanship to date, she didn’t consult us. The problem is that our original guidance on face coverings specifically excluded schools. Cue much tortured debate between myself, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and No. 10 about how to respond. Much as Sturgeon would relish it, nobody here wants a big spat with the Scots. So, U-turn it is.
Given the scale and speed of this U-turn, and in view of the Government’s dogmatic insistence on following the science, one might reasonably assume that once forced into this decision there would have been a concerted effort to establish the evidence and to assess the science-based health risk.
UsForThem asked repeatedly through this period for the DfE to confirm the evidence basis for its policies on masks in schools, and latterly for the Department to produce any evidence that it had carried out a risk assessment prior to those decisions, or for confirmation simply that someone somewhere in Government had evaluated the harms and benefits of the policy for the millions of children it had impacted. Our requests were variously ignored or avoided.
In October of 2022, however, after repeated FOI challenges by our team and after the DfE had claimed that its paper trail could not be disclosed because to do so would constrain future policymaking processes, DfE officials have now finally provided access to some of their paperwork. Despite heavy redactions across the documents revealed by the DfE, the picture that emerges, and seemingly now confirmed by Matt Hancock’s diaries, is both astounding and deeply concerning.
The first notable revelation is that the first time an evaluation of the masks in class policy was provided to the Education Minister, at that time Nadhim Zahawi, appears to have been on December 30th 2021. That is seventeen months after schools had first been advised by his department to require children to wear masks in schools. There was no assessment of harms for masks in schools under Gavin Williamson.
The second notable revelation is that more than one third of the DfE’s evaluation document supporting its briefing to the Minister was given over to concerns about the risk of teaching unions encouraging their teachers to walk out of schools on the insidious grounds that schools had become dangerous places to work. Those concerns were given materially greater airtime in that December 2021 briefing document than the few paragraphs devoted to the risks of harm for schoolchildren.
It is evident that the adversarial approach of teaching unions had a material influence on the DfE’s advice to the Minister. The evaluation document notes that mandating the wearing of masks in school “could help reduce the risk of some teachers invoking section 44 of the Employment Rights Act” (a statutory provision that allows employees, exceptionally, to decline to work in materially unsafe conditions), a provision the NEU and Unison had apparently flagged to their members in January 2021. It also cited surveys recording that 71% of Unison members had reported in March 2021 that masks in class were thought to be “an important safety measure”, and 79% of respondents to a private schools survey around the same time had “noted benefits of wearing face coverings in the classroom”.
The deeply troubling implication of this limited and largely redacted paper trail is that policymaking within the DfE was led not by a rational evaluation of scientific evidence or after a weighing-up of actual and potential risks and harms for children against known or perceived benefits. Rather, the motivation for the August 2020 policy appears to have been a direct response to union-led pressures, and perhaps also to incitements from some elements of the mainstream media, who seemed intent on shutting down schools in order to ‘protect’ teachers and other adults. Any harms to children appear to have been of subsidiary importance to making adults feel safe.
Also notable from DfE’s disclosures is the imbalance in the scant and woefully tardy risk-benefit analysis that had been done, and despite which the Minister had been encouraged to press ahead with the masking of schoolchildren.
The evidence provided in DfE’s briefing papers for the efficacy of masks is shallow, inconclusive and tardy – heavily caveated with benefits expressed in ‘can’, ‘potentially’, ‘tentatively’ and ‘may’ terms, rather than ‘will’. And the most substantial pieces of evidence referenced in support of masking children were an observational study of 123 schools carried out by the DfE over a period of 2-3 weeks in Autumn 2021 (a year after masks had first been imposed on schoolchildren), and a study carried out in the U.S. in Spring 2021, from which had been extrapolated a tentative prediction that between 26,000 and 210,000 children might have been saved from missing school if they had been masked.
At the same time, however, the DfE’s document acknowledges that its study had not established a causative connection between masking in classrooms and a reduction of missed school days; nor could that study do anything to take account of the impact of other society-wide interventions, including interventions applied to the broader adult population, which had been implemented over the same observational period.
In any event, and crucially, none of the reports or studies relied on for Nadhim Zahawi’s briefing in December 2021 had been carried out in August 2020 when DfE made its first U-turn policy decision to introduce masks in classrooms in England and Wales. So the DfE appears to have been flying blind from August 2020 until late 2021 – with no idea about the risks and harms to which it was exposing kids by introducing what amounted to a nationwide mandate for masking schoolchildren for up to eight hours a day; something, incidentally, that the Government never ultimately demanded of the general population, or indeed of its own ministerial teams.
In contrast, the evidence on ‘downsides’ (i.e., harms) of masking pupils in the DfE document is couched in definitive terms, referencing impacts on communication, cognition, educational performance, confidence; and the fact that “masks will become highly contaminated with upper respiratory tract and skin micro-organisms”, such that used masks could become a source of viral transmission. Even at the start of 2021, it was already clear and indeed had been referenced by the Prime Minister and later union leaders that wearing masks in class would impact communication. DfE surveys carried out in March 2021 and cited in the newly-revealed December 2021 briefing for Nadhim Zahawi had confirmed that 94% of teachers believed communication would be harder with a mask, emphatically reinforcing what everyone, including the Prime Minister and the Education Minister, already knew. DfE also noted at that time that children from ethnic minorities and in deprived areas were expected to struggle most with masks – adding to the stress of pandemic strictures for those children.
Of the gravest concern then, and potentially of legal significance, the evidence revealed in these briefing documents lays bare that DfE officials, and latterly the Minister, knew that wearing masks in class would impact children’s educational performance, cognitive abilities and attention as well as communication.
The evidence cited in December 2021 also raised concerns about the safety and hygiene for children of wearing masks, the need to dispose of them safely, and that children would need to be able to increase their hygiene if they were to avoid increasing the risk of transmission via masks. Or to put it another way, DfE officials had evidence that mandating masks in class could in certain circumstances increase transmission rates in school settings if at the same time hand-washing and other associated sanitary measures could not be guaranteed. Yet they appeared rather more concerned by the belligerence of teaching unions. This by itself is quite an astonishing revelation.
On the basis of the documents now revealed by the DfE, buttressed by Matt Hancock’s more recent disclosures, it appears that science played no meaningful part in this pernicious episode of policy-making, and that no health risk analysis was carried out before the DfE required schoolchildren to wear masks for up to eight hours a day. Of grave concern for parents, this implies that masking schoolchildren was a politically-driven decision reacting to pressure from teaching unions and mainstream media, and seeking to avoid unhelpful comparisons to the earlier decision of the Scottish Government to mask schoolchildren in Scotland.
It is hard not to draw the conclusion from this wafer-thin paper trail that DfE’s decision to mask children in classrooms was yet another instance during the pandemic when the best interests of children were subordinated or ignored for the appearance of safety for adults, or worse still for reasons of political expediency and in particular to avoid the embarrassment of a walkout by teaching staff at the behest of union leaders.
The U.K. Covid Inquiry has an opportunity to review the adequacy of the Government’s risk assessment activity for pandemic intervention measures, and more broadly the governance processes around significant decision-points such as occurred in relation to masks in class in August 2020. It should not be controversial now for the Inquiry to probe why the only risk assessment for what has been one of the most significant interventions in the educational life and health and wellbeing of our nation’s schoolchildren appears to have been prepared an astonishing 17 months after masks were first recommended, and to ask how public health policy-making of this magnitude could have been better informed and more impervious to inappropriate politicised influences.
Though it is not yet a matter of investigation within the domain of the Covid Inquiry, if in time serious health or developmental impacts are revealed in the generation of young children most affected by the masks in class policy such that questions of legal accountability may need to be assessed, we hope that the information revealed by our FOI team’s efforts will provide a basis for evidencing what DfE, union officials and crucially the ministers who made the key decisions knew of the risk of harms and the limited benefits of masking schoolchildren, and of their motives for imposing this damaging intervention on our children.
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