A fresh UK split on coronavirus policy emerged today as teachers and pupils in Scotland were told they are free to wear masks.
Children have been back in classes north of the border, weeks ahead of England because their holidays finish earlier.
And Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has taken a different approach on face coverings. Face masks should be worn by staff who cannot effectively social distance, and anyone who wishes to use one is allowed.
By contrast, health minister Edward Argar said this morning that there is no prospect of such rules in England.
‘That’s not something that’s in prospect at this point,’ he said in a round of interviews. ‘We’ve been clear and the Department for Education have been clear that that poses a challenge to actually the ability to teach and the ability to learn in certain contexts.
‘We don’t think that that’s necessary at this point, not least because we are essentially setting up different class groups or year groups as social bubbles.’
Speaking alongside Ms Sturgeon at her daily briefing in Edinburgh, Scotland’s national clinical director Jason Leitch said: ‘Any child or adult who has been advised or wants to wear a face covering, will be supported to do so.’
Scotland’s schools are returning from today, because their holidays end earlier. Pictured, pupils arrive at Kelso High School in the Scottish Borders
Pupils return to Kelso High School for the first time since the start of the coronavirus lockdown
Tory MPs are urging Boris Johnson (pictured visiting a building site in Hereford today) to emulate Margaret Thatcher’s (left) battle against coal miners and force teaching unions to get children back in schools in England
Face coverings are one of the precautions urged by some unions as schools reopen.
But Boris Johnson today insisted he has ‘no doubt’ it is safe for schools to reopen as he was urged to emulate Thatcher’s battle against coal miners and force teaching unions to get children back in class.
Tory MPs are demanding the PM stays ‘unbreakable’ despite claims of attempts to sabotage his drive to get all pupils back in classes in England next month.
There are also increasing signs of a backlash against Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, with complaints he has been ‘practically invisible’ and comparisons with hapless comedy character Frank Spencer.
The NEU union upped the ante again by claiming the science on infections is not yet ‘clear enough’ to guarantee safety.
But on a visit to Hereford, Mr Johnson played down the risks. ‘I have no doubt that it can be done safely. Schools are doing a huge amount to make sure that it is done safely,’ he said.
‘Just for the sake of social justice, ensuring that all our kids get the education they need, we need to get our pupils, our children, back to school in September and I am very, very impressed by the work that has been done to make those schools Covid-secure.’
Ministers have become increasingly frustrated with the teaching unions in recent days, particularly after the National Education Union published a ‘nit-picking’ list of 200 safety demands for all schools to adhere to.
But the government is facing increasing pressure to take a tough line.
The Tory chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, told the Telegraph: ‘The Government needs to be absolutely unbreakable on this. If teachers won’t go in, be Maggie about it and say ‘we will find alternatives’. ‘
Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith added: ‘Unions have got one objective – to use their political muscle to damage Boris Johnson.
‘It’s a re-run of the Eighties except it’s not the coal miners, it’s the teaching unions.’
One backbencher delivered a withering verdict on Mr Williamson’s performance, telling the paper: ‘Boris has got to show the courage of Thatcher in his battle with the unions, but that’s quite difficult when his divisional commander is Frank Spencer.’
Mr Johnson dodged questions about research suggesting that older children can transmit coronavirus as easily as adults.
He said: ‘I’m afraid you are going to see outbreaks, we have seen them across the country in the last few weeks and months and we have also seen the immense efforts that local authorities have gone to, local communities have gone to, to get that outbreak under control.
‘The most important thing for people to remember is that you have got to get schools back, we will get schools back, but also we have got to stick to our discipline – so in schools they have some very well thought through plans for how to manage it.’
There are signs of a Tory backlash against Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured left), with complaints he has been ‘practically invisible’ and comparisons with hapless comedy character Frank Spencer (right)
The government is set to publish evidence about coronavirus risk in schools in a bid to reassure parents.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has been asked by No10 to carry out a review of research before the new term starts.
One study expected to be published later this week shows not one child was hospitalised in June and July.
Early findings from Public Health England (PHE) research are likely to say next week that there is very little evidence of transmission in schools.
The unions insist they are not trying to sabotage the back-to-school plans but are asking genuine questions about the Government’s approach and the lack of a plan B should virus cases escalate again.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘This idea that demonising the trade unions lets the Government off the hook with difficult questions we are asking.
‘They ought to be facing difficult questions because we are in the middle of something extremely challenging.’
Mr Barton added: ‘We would like to see more thought given to blended learning as a back-up plan, which could be a rota system of children in for one week and then learning at home for one week. This would be better than children returning solely to remote education.’
Avis Gilmore, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, called for a more robust test, track and trace system to be in place to ensure the welfare of pupils and school staff.
She said: ‘Government could do much more to assure schools and local authorities that, should a second spike occur, either nationally or locally, there is a clear Plan B in place.
‘This plan needs to spell out what action must be taken in a variety of situations, so that schools and colleges can make the preparations parents expect of them.’
The reopening of schools north of the border has also caused tensions between Nicola Sturgeon and unions.
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) said the Scottish Borders and Moray local authorities have failed to consult and reach agreement with it and other trade unions, in line with Scottish Government guidelines.
Pupils in the Scottish Borders returned to school on Tuesday, while they will be back in classrooms in Moray on Wednesday.
The EIS said a lack of discussion around the flexibility of phased returns means staff are under ‘intense pressure’ over schools reopening.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the union, said about 80 per cent of its members have expressed ‘deep concerns’ about safety over the reopening of schools.