Secondary school pupils will be told to wear face masks from the moment they arrive until they leave when they return to classrooms this week.
In a desperate effort to protect the education of millions of youngsters amid a sharp rise in cases of the Omicron variant, Ministers have requested that pupils cover their faces all day – including while they are being taught.
Students are already asked to wear masks in communal areas.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi last night said he and Boris Johnson saw schools as their ‘No 1 priority’, adding that they wanted to ‘do everything in our power to minimise disruption’.
School teachers and pupils will have to wear masks when they return to the classroom next week under new guidance issued by the government
Ministers fear there will be a massive increase in Omicron cases when children return to the classroom next week
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi last night said he and Boris Johnson saw schools as their ‘No 1 priority’, adding that they wanted to ‘do everything in our power to minimise disruption’
The wearing of masks is not a legal requirement, but Ministers expect schools to follow the guidance, which also applies to teachers and support staff. The measures will be reviewed on January 26, with a Government source saying they ‘will not be in place a minute longer than they need to be’, and adding: ‘It is obviously a better classroom experience without masks.’
Ministers are braced for a ‘big bang’ of Omicron cases and staff shortages when students and teachers are tested for coronavirus this week. A substantial surge in either could see larger class sizes or a return to remote learning for some pupils. In London, where rates of Omicron are particularly high, parents have been warned that school closures cannot be ruled out.
‘As a general rule, the more you test the more you are going to find Covid,’ the source said. ‘But the idea is that by containing it early, you stop the spread in schools.’
Many MPs are opposed to online lessons given the damage already done to the education of millions of youngsters by successive lockdowns.
Writing in The Mail on Sunday today, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee, says: ‘Pupils do not need to take any more time off. Every day lost is another day that we are damaging children’s lives.’
As well as the new measures on masks, the Government is deploying 7,000 extra air-cleaning units across the education sector to improve ventilation and slow the spread of Omicron. The schools regulator Ofcom is also temporarily suspending inspections.
The moves came as:
- A daily record of 162,572 Covid cases was recorded in England, up 47.9 per cent on last Saturday. There were 1,915 hospital admissions, up almost 50 per cent week-on-week, and 154 deaths;
- Ministers rejected calls to cut the isolation period for those with Covid-19 from seven to five days because up to 30 per cent would still be infectious;
- The continued shortage of lateral flow tests sparked fears of staff shortages in schools and hospitals and travel chaos when Britain returns to work this week;
- Official figures show that 132 million coronavirus jabs were given last year, with more than 90 per cent of over-12s now having had at least one jab. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the figure was ‘astounding and a true reflection of the fantastic work of our NHS and its volunteers’;
- The head of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said the next few days would be crucial in understanding the impact of Omicron and Ministers ‘must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed’;
- As a dozen hospitals temporarily suspended routine visits, the British Medical Association said further public health measures should be urgently introduced. But analysis of official figures reveal that just one in 40 NHS hospital staff were unavailable to work because of coronavirus in late December;
- MPs called for action after health trusts reintroduced Covid restrictions which force pregnant women to attend scans and appointments alone;
- Thousands of revellers from Scotland and Wales, where tougher coronavirus restrictions are in place, crossed the border into England to welcome in the New Year;
- One in eight of those hospitalised with Omicron are from black communities, but studies suggest the variant does less damage to the lungs than previous strains;
- As the MoS discovered dangerous anti-vax propaganda on YouTube, a father whose pregnant daughter died after being persuaded by such material not to get jabbed urged the tech firm to step up its efforts.
Teaching unions broadly welcomed the Government’s move on masks. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Reintroducing face masks in secondary classrooms appears to be a sensible move, given the circumstances.’
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the decision was ‘overdue’ and urged Ministers to make it a ‘requirement’.
No 10 is understood to have ruled out a return of the ‘bubble’ system which saw entire classes – and sometimes years – sent home if a single pupil tested positive.
‘That’s all in the past. We want to carry on classroom teaching,’ the source said.
Given the prospect of staff shortages, Ministers have renewed efforts to lure retired teachers back to the classroom. A website through which former teachers can volunteer has received 30,000 visits and Tory MPs Jonathan Gullis and Caroline Ansell, both qualified teachers, have signed up.
Teaching unions broadly welcomed the Government’s move on masks. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Reintroducing face masks in secondary classrooms appears to be a sensible move, given the circumstances’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured, has been warned to expect a ‘big bang’ of Omicron cases in schools when they return next week. Teachers and support staff will also be required to wear masks. The measures will be reviewed on January 26
Tom Hunt, another Conservative MP who sits on the Education Select Committee, urged the Government to keep an open mind on reducing the isolation period from seven to five days, as countries including the US and Greece have done.
‘Remote learning should not be on the table… It is mission-critical to keep schools open and keep kids physically in school. No stone should be left unturned,’ he said.
Mr Hunt also urged teaching unions to be ‘constructive’. His call came as it emerged guidance issued by the NEU advised school leaders that teachers should only have to cover for colleagues on ‘rare’ occasions.
Further guidance issued by the union before Christmas said: ‘If you are asked to cover for a colleague who is off with Covid or any other absence greater than two days, you should refuse to do it.’
Chris McGovern, the chairman of the Campaign For Real Education, said: ‘This is educational sabotage. Teachers have a choice. The best and the bravest will continue to put their pupils first and they will be remembered for doing so.’
Ministers say no to five-day Covid isolation: Fears rise that schools, hospitals and transport networks could grind to a halt as Government defies calls from business chiefs to follow the US’ lead because up to 30% of sufferers ‘would still be infectious’
By Stephen Adams for the Mail on Sunday
Ministers have rejected calls to reduce the isolation period for Covid sufferers from seven to five days because up to 30 per cent would still be infectious.
Business leaders and some Tory MPs had urged Ministers to follow the lead of other countries, including the US and Greece, by cutting self-isolation for those showing no symptoms to five days.
But a Government source told The Mail on Sunday that, while the option was discussed, it was rejected because so many people could still go on to infect others if released from self-isolation that early.
Lateral flow tests have been ring-fenced for schools so they can open safely next week
Commuters face significant disruption because of large numbers of train and bus workers forced to self-isolate leading to cancelled services
It comes amid growing concern that lengthy self-isolation is harming vital services and the economy – and with a growing row over the lack of access to lateral flow tests (LFTs).
As millions prepared to return to work after the festive break, Labour accused the Government of failing to order sufficient numbers of LFTs, which are increasingly seen as essential to keep the country moving while minimising the threat from Omicron.
Ministers insist hundreds of millions more LFTs will soon be available.
Just before Christmas, self-isolation was reduced from ten to seven days as long as the individual is negative for Covid on two LFTs – the first on day six and the second on day seven.
Asked about the proposal for a further cut to five days, the Government source said: ‘The data we have is that almost one in three people could still be infectious five days after testing positive with Omicron. It isn’t thought it would be safe to cut self-isolation that far.’
The decision differs from that taken in the US where the influential Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the move to halve self-isolation from ten to five days would ‘ensure people can safely continue their daily lives’.
To re-enter everyday life after five days, Americans must be symptom-free and wear a mask around others for a further five days. In Greece, Health Minister Thanos Plevris indicated that Omicron’s relative mildness compared with previous variants lay behind its decision to cut the period of self-isolation. ‘The evidence we have from Omicron is encouraging,’ he said.
Rather than solely rely on being symptom-free after five days, the UK Government could in theory require people to have two negative LFT results but move them forward to days four and five.
The system is, however, self-policing and people who test negative on LFTs can still be infectious, as they are less sensitive than the gold-standard PCR tests.
Another consideration would be the current poor availability of LFTs, with many pharmacies out of stock due to soaring demand.
Isolation is also causing problems in hospitals with NHS staff forced to remain at home
Last night, Labour’s health spokesman Wes Streeting said Health Secretary Sajid Javid needed to ‘pull his finger out’ to ensure people had access to the tests. He added: ‘Given how critical testing is going to be over the course of the coming months, the Government really does need to get an immediate grip on this.
‘Testing is going to be vital to keep people working and keeping children at school. If families can’t do that, because Ministers haven’t got their act together, they will have a lot to answer for.’
Around one million LFTs are being taken every day, twice as many as PCRs.
When Omicron emerged in early December, health officials were adamant there would be enough supplies to meet higher demand.
Mr Streeting said: ‘The Health Secretary said before Christmas the challenge was distribution not supply, and there were plentiful stocks of tests in warehouses. But I think it’s more likely the Government has simply underestimated demand, hasn’t ordered enough tests, and doesn’t want to ‘fess up about it.’
Ministers insist hundreds of millions of tests will soon be available and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi says tests have been ringfenced for schools to ensure they can reopen safely this week.
With Britain returning to work this week, commuters are also worried that Covid-related staff shortages will bring misery on trains.
More than 20 rail companies have already reduced services or plan to do so as a result of Covid infections and self-isolation rules.