‘No evidence’ that forcing children to wear masks in school cuts Covid risk

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Robert Halfon, MP for chair of the Education Select Committee of MP’s spoke out following the widespread criticism of new government evidence which claimed to back up its decision to make children over 11 in England wear masks. 

The Department for Education study, which found “inconclusive” evidence of the benefit of mask wearing in stopping covid transmission, also found the majority of children believed facemasks in the classroom make it more difficult to communicate and learn. 

Mr Halfon, MP for Harlow, said: “I strongly welcome the Secretary of State making every effort to keep schools open, however the study that has been used to justify mask wearing among secondary school children is inconclusive – in other words it has not been shown to have reduced Covid risk. 

“We have to recognise this is not a neutral intervention. The government’s own study found 94 percent of headteachers felt face to face coverings made communication more difficult, while eighty percent of children felt they were less able to communicate and fifty per cent of children found learning difficult. The Children’s Commissioner and the National Children’s Deaf Society also have serious reservations about this.

“Even though the teachers are not required to wear masks all day, children who have hearing problems cannot communicate with each other.”

He added: “Study after study shows the impact of covid measures on children’s well-being and mental health has been very severe. Mental health referrals have rocketed by 60 percent in the past year.

“We know that while there is minimal risk of children to Covid there is a bigger risk to them of their education, mental health and learning and development which is being impeded by masks.”

The report highlighted a survey by the Unison trade union, which represents support staff, which found 71 percent of members said face coverings in secondary school lessons were an important safety measure.

Professor Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University said: “This appears to be a retrofit of evidence to suit a rushed out policy. This study is not fit for purpose and should not be used to underpin a policy, that is clear. 

“The result shows there is an unknown statistical significance of masks in schools. This is unacceptable and the justification for face masks in schools needs to be properly made by the Education Minister.”

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He added: “We have had two years to do a proper randomised controlled trial which is the quality of data we would need to show if there was a measurable difference. This has not been done. We cannot keep intervening as a reaction to the media and to fear and anxiety bringing out measures and removing them weeks later. This is now crucial because we are putting our anxieties onto children which are harming them.”

Last week children’s author Julia Donaldson, 73, said: forcing children to wear masks in class was “dystopian.”

The creator of the Gruffalo, a former secondary school English teacher, said she feared the use of face coverings in schools was becoming normalised and was concerned children’s education should not be “sacrificed” to protect the NHS. The author of 200 books said: “Even if the current proposals are only for three weeks, this could be repeated and become something considered normal whenever there is infection, whereas in fact it should not be considered normal, it’s alien – even dystopian.”

The CEO of the National Children’s Deaf Society, Susan Daniels, said face masks can have a “devastating” impact on deaf children. 

The DfE study concluded masks are a “comparatively cheap and easy” measure to implement and can be a “visible outward signal of safety behaviour and a reminder of Covi-19 risks.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We know children and young people want to be in the classroom as it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing, which is why face-to-face teaching continues to be an absolute priority.

“As part of a package of measures to help reduce transmission and disruption to learning and maximise attendance, we have temporarily advised that children and young people in year 7 or above wear face coverings in the classroom.

“This decision was based on the latest scientific evidence and public health advice given current transmission rates of the Omicron variant, and we will review the advice on face coverings on 26 January and will not keep them in place a day longer than is necessary.”

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