The Education Secretary has said he will personally vet any plans to bring back masks in schools in areas hit by Covid spikes.
In a letter to MPs, seen by the PA news agency, Nadhim Zahawi said he has agreed with directors of public health that, in the event of “extraordinary outbreaks” of Covid in local areas, they will consult him before recommending that pupils are asked again to wear face coverings.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that masks would be scrapped in school classrooms from Thursday, with communal areas to follow on January 27.
The move has proved controversial with education unions, who warned it could be “premature”, and that the situation in schools remains “extremely challenging” with “significant levels” of staff and pupil absence.
Writing to MPs on Thursday, Mr Zahawi said his decision to ask secondary school pupils to wear masks in classrooms in January amid the Omicron wave of coronavirus was not made “lightly”, but it was “worth it to ensure we maximised face-to-face learning”.
Going forward, he said he would be consulted on any plans from local health chiefs to bring back face coverings in schools in areas with Covid outbreaks.
“I also want to be clear that, given my evidence-led approach, I will continue to work collaboratively with the UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) and local directors of public health to ensure the right response to local outbreaks,” he wrote.
“I met with directors of public health yesterday and we agreed that in the event of extraordinary outbreaks of Covid in localised areas, they will share their plans with me where they are recommending reintroducing face coverings in tightly-focused geographical zones, so that we can assess evidence and data to ensure any extra measures are proportionate.”
The Daily Telegraph reported that headteachers are already revolting against the move to scrap masks in classrooms, with more than 100 schools writing to parents to say pupils must continue wearing face coverings in lessons.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, told PA on Wednesday that while everyone wanted mask-wearing in schools to end “when it is safe”, the latest move was “premature”.
And Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the situation in schools remained “extremely challenging with significant levels of pupil and staff absence because of Covid-19”.
The Daily Telegraph cited Robert Halfon, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee, as saying schools must “get rid of masks once and for all”.
He is reported to have said: “Instead of gold-plating masks, which the scientific advice says are no longer needed, schools should be gold-plating children’s wellbeing and education.”
The news comes as the Government updated its safety guidance on wearing face coverings in universities and colleges, with masks “no longer advised” in lecture halls and classrooms from Thursday.
From January 27, students, staff and visitors will no longer need to wear face coverings in communal areas either, although Government guidance says universities and colleges can use them “voluntarily”.
Unions have called the move “irresponsible”.
University and College Union (UCU) secretary Jo Grady said: “It is clear that whilst Covid cases remain high, basic measures such as face masks, which help prevent the spread of the virus, should continue to be in place.”
She added: “Education has faced enough disruption and it is irresponsible to abandon mitigations that reduce the risk of infections and outbreaks.”