Government u-turns on face masks in schools, PM hits out at BBC

Published by Scott Challinor on August 26th 2020, 10:23am

Secondary school pupils in areas affected by local lockdowns in England will be expected to wear masks after the government reversed its guidelines on Tuesday night.

Mask-wearing will be expected in communal areas such as school corridors and libraries at affected institutions, but education secretary Gavin Williamson has insisted that the new guidance will not become mandatory for all secondary schools in England, as will be the case in Scotland from August 31.

The move comes after ministers and officials had repeatedly spoken out against the need for face coverings in schools when the autumn term restarts next month.

The government’s latest u-turn has come much to the chagrin of some backbench MPs. Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee, told the BBC that the government “needs to get a grip, be certain, inspire confidence rather than just changing its mind” and that the "wrong message" was being sent about the safety of schools by bringing in the changes.

Williamson has dismissed the notion that the latest change in guidance is another u-turn from the Department for Education following the exams controversy, saying that his department was “clear throughout that we were keeping this under review.”

Speaking on the BBC's Today programme, Williamson said: "We always listen to best scientific and medical advice.

"The first guidance in May... was quite clear about keeping this under review. In July... we again were clear about the fact this was something constantly under review."

Justifying the change, Williamson said that he and prime minister Boris Johnson did not want areas in local lockdown left “falling further behind” because of enforced school closures, arguing that mask wearing will help reduce the risk of transmission further and keep schools open in affected areas.

Earlier, Boris Johnson had spoken out against the BBC’s decision to play instrumental versions of the patriotic songs Land Of Hope And Glory and Rule, Britannia! during September’s upcoming Last Night of the Proms.

Reports had suggested that the lyrics would not be sung due to their association with Britain’s colonial past and slavery, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.

Disgruntled with the notion, the prime minister informed the media that he felt it was “time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history”.

Johnson said: "I cannot believe... that the BBC is saying that they will not sing the words of Land Of Hope And Glory or Rule Britannia! as they traditionally do at the end of The Last Night of The Proms.

"I think it's time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.

"I wanted to get that off my chest.”

A spokesperson for the Labour Party said that the “pomp and pageantry” of Last Night of the Proms was “a staple of British summer” and “enjoying patriotic songs does not - and should not- present a barrier to examining our past and learning from it.”

The BBC has defended its decision to include instrumental versions of the songs in its running order for the programme, claiming that it was forced by Covid-19 restrictions.

The Last Night of the Proms concert will take place at the Royal Albert Hall on September 12 with limited numbers of performers and no in-person audience, and the BBC says that the lesser numbers of performers present makes it difficult to perform the songs in the traditional manner.

A spokesperson for the broadcaster said: "For the avoidance of any doubt, these songs will be sung next year. We obviously share the disappointment of everyone that the Proms will have to be different but believe this is the best solution in the circumstances and look forward to their traditional return next year."

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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Scott Challinor
Business Editor
August 26th 2020, 10:23am

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