The Government has updated its safety guidance on wearing face masks in universities and colleges, with masks “no longer advised” in lecture halls and classrooms from Thursday.
The news follows Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday that “once regulations lapse the Government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks anywhere”.
From January 27, students, staff and visitors will no longer need to wear masks in universities, although Government guidance says universities and colleges can use them “voluntarily”.
Unions have branded 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.”
Ms Grady said that the UCU expected employers to put the safety of staff and students first “and ensure that high quality face masks, which are scientifically proven to reduce transmission, are freely available for staff and students on campus”, as well as checking that indoor spaces have good levels of ventilation.
Writing on social media, Anastasia Karamalidou, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, said: “At the very minimum, it is disappointing to see the removal of masks from educational settings.
“As we are starting another university term in the middle of winter, removal of masks endangers student and staff physical and mental health.”
Last week, the UCU said employers must “raise their game” by allowing clinically vulnerable staff to work remotely, as well as by providing all staff with higher quality face masks.
The union has also called for staff who are self-isolating, or have caring responsibilities for others who are isolating, to be able to access sick pay.
Earlier this month, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said there were “no excuses” for universities not to deliver face-to-face teaching despite a surge in Covid cases and staff absences.
He added that students who felt “they are not getting value for money” should complain to the Office for Students.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “With the removal of the Plan B measures announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, nothing should impede the full face-to-face teaching and learning experience delivered before the pandemic.
“Students deserve a fair deal and that includes the high-quality education they were promised.”