Scientists on the government’s Sage committee told ministers that pupils should continue to wear face masks into the summer, according to documents released hours after the education secretary said the advice was to be watered down in secondary schools.
Gavin Williamson confirmed on Friday that the government was planning to change its guidance around the wearing of masks in class for secondary school pupils at step 3 of its roadmap out of lockdown, which is expected to go ahead on 17 May.
The decision follows criticism from scientists, public health experts and teaching unions, who wrote to Williamson this week to say vaccination rates were not yet sufficient to protect children and their families from a rise in infections.
The new document, released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Friday, added weight to those concerns. On 21 April, Sage’s outbreak modellers said that because schools only reopened for about three weeks in March, it was difficult to determine the full impact of children returning to school, and whether infections caught at schools had spread into the wider community.
But the scientists raised concerns about data from the Office for National Statistics which found an increase in the rate of positive tests among pupils when schools were open. “This highlights the importance of maintaining current mitigation measures in schools, such as testing and mask wearing, in the coming months,” they wrote.
(March 8, 2021) Step 1, part 1
In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor.
(March 29, 2021) Step 1, part 2
In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed. The official stay at home order ends, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.
(April 12, 2021) Step 2
In effect from 12 April, non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and some public buildings such as libraries and commercial art galleries can reopen. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants, but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.
Also reopening are settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will still apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open, but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities is also allowed, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.
(May 17, 2021) Step 3
Again with the caveat "no earlier than 17 May", depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.
Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.
For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.
This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.
(June 21, 2021) Step 4
No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.
Peter Walker Political correspondent
Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that as infection rates fell and the vaccine programme continued, “we plan to remove the requirement for face coverings in the classroom at step 3 of the roadmap”. Government guidance will continue to recommend that secondary pupils should wear masks in corridors and other areas inside schools where social distancing is not practical. Boris Johnson is expected to make the announcement as early as Monday, according to the newspaper.
Government science advisers are comfortable with step 3 going ahead on 17 May but are wary that step 4 of the roadmap, scheduled for no sooner that 21 June, could be knocked off course if vaccination rates slow, or if people ignore the six-person limit on indoor mixing and other social distancing restrictions that remain in place after step 3.
The advisers will review the impact of step 3 easing in mid-June and make further recommendations then as to whether it will be safe to proceed with step 4 on 21 June, when the government hopes to remove all limits on social contact. Though people may start returning to workplaces at the end of June, the advisers believe it makes sense for home working and hybrid working to continue where possible.
Another Sage document released on Friday emphasises the importance of making small gatherings of 10 to 50 people Covid-safe as the UK comes out of lockdown. According to research submitted to Sage, these events create a disproportionate number of infections because they are much more common than mass events involving thousands of people.
The letter to Williamson this week called for rules on masks at schools to remain until at least 21 June. The letter was signed by scientists and public health experts from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter and UCL, among others, along with five unions representing teachers and other school staff and parents.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “What we want to see from the government is clarity in the guidance that is given to schools and colleges over this matter so that everyone knows where they stand and there aren’t grey areas left to negotiate. It’s important that it’s very clear what schools and colleges are required to do, and where they have discretion to make decisions based on their own contexts and risk assessments.”