Division after government brings back masks into secondary schools classrooms and ‘robust contingency plans’ drawn up

Health bosses have reacted to the news that secondary schools will once again ask pupils to wear face masks in the classroom – with ‘robust contingency plans’ being drawn up to support ‘possible absence levels’ in teachers in the new year.

The Government said the move to reintroduce face masks in secondary schools would ‘maximise the number of children in school’ for the ‘maximum amount of time’, limiting the threat to education posed by the Omicron variant.

However, up to a quarter of public sector workers could face time off work in the new year as the variant continues to spread across the country.

READ MORE: The situation in Greater Manchester’s hospitals as staff absences soar into thousands due to Covid

The Cabinet Office said that although disruption caused by Omicron has so far been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”, leaders have been asked to test plans against “worst case scenarios” of between 10 and 25 pc workforce absence rates.

Boris Johnson has tasked ministers with developing “robust contingency plans” for workplace absences as the Government acknowledged high Covid levels could hit businesses hard over the coming weeks.

It follows a call in December from Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi for ex-teachers to help with Covid-related staff shortages in the new year.

Mr Zahawi acknowledged the variant “presents challenges”, but said the Government is taking steps to “bolster our support for schools” in an effort to minimise disruption when students return after the Christmas break.

High Covid levels could hit schools hard over the coming weeks

But education committee chairman Robert Halfon said mask-wearing would have a “significant impact on children’s wellbeing”.

Mr Halfon, chairman of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, said he is worried about a possible negative impact of making masks compulsory for children in secondary schools.

Speaking on Times Radio, the Conservative MP said: “I do worry about the mask policy. The children’s minister came to my committee and said there was very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings.

“Jonathan Van-Tam, hugely respected, the deputy chief medical officer, said that they could be quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children, the national Children’s Deaf Society has tweeted out their big reservations about mask policy, and what I worry about is the effect that masks have on children’s wellbeing, mental health and anxiety, and we already know that lockdown was a huge spike in children’s mental health problems.

He added: “So what I’d like the Government to do is set out why they’re doing this, set out the evidence in the House of Commons.

“I think there will be a statement on Tuesday, but I do worry masks in schools will have a negative impact.”

However Mr Zahawi, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, said it was his “firm belief that, despite the bumps in the road that inevitably occur with a virus of this nature, we are transitioning from pandemic to endemic in this country”.

“That does not mean that we can take our eye off the ball or that we can throw caution to the wind,” he added.

And there may be differing reactions over the Government’s decision to ask older students to wear face coverings in class again, a union leader has said.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told BBC News: “I don’t think that anybody is going to be hanging out the bunting at the thought of that.

“There are all kinds of reasons why you wouldn’t want face coverings.”

He added: “Parents quite legitimately in England might be saying ‘well, if my child was going to school in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland – what’s so different? Why are they wearing face coverings there if it is seen as helpful?’

“Secondly, if this is a short-term fix, as the Government says, and one of a number of different measures including ventilation and moving Ofsted to the sidelines – if that is going to do what we all want and keep young people in their school or in college then that will, I think, be a price worth paying.”

“But it does mean that there can be no excuse for our children not learning face to face in the classroom where they want and need to be.”

And Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), disagreed with concerns about possible negative mental health effects of making masks compulsory in secondary schools.

She said: “Robert Halfon says it has a significant mental health effect. So I would really want to see the study that shows that.

“We have mask-wearing in secondary schools in Wales and Scotland, and I don’t think that it is causing a huge problem.

“Secondary school pupils wear masks in corridors and hallways and surely, Robert Halfon has been, you know, campaigning hard, quite rightly, to keep schools open.

“Schools are crowded buildings. Even in secondary only just under half the pupils have been vaccinated. And we know that mask-wearing does have an effect of suppressing transmission.”

But the supply of 7,000 new air purifiers for areas of schools where good ventilation is difficult has been branded “completely inadequate” by Dr Bousted.

Dr Bousted said that with “over 300,000 classrooms in England they (the Government) have failed to provide an effective solution”.

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Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said he believed ministers should have acted sooner.

“We are really pleased that the Government is talking to us and trying to work out how to get some support into schools now,” Mr Whiteman told the BBC.

“We’re rather disappointed that we’re having the conversations this side of Christmas when we could have been making these arrangements earlier on.

“The other thing we’re going to need is a very flexible approach from the Government that means as we begin to understand the picture more and more, they’re prepared to make other changes very quickly.”

As the rollout of boosters continues, Health Secretary Sajid Javid hailed the delivery of 132 million vaccinations across the UK throughout 2021 as “astounding and a true reflection of the fantastic work of our NHS and its volunteers”.

Mr Javid has warned that restrictions on freedom “must be an absolute last resort”, but on Saturday NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the Government “must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed”.

The most recent rules are set to expire six weeks after implementation, with a review after three weeks, which is expected on or close to January 4.

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