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Thu 24 June 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reports on leaked emails which suggest that the Department for Education is cherry-picking evidence to weaken safety measures

The Department for Education’s review of face-covering policies in schools is “skewing evidence” to justify “dumping face-covering requirements and mitigations rather than strengthening them”, according to sources familiar with Government questions sent out to schools, teachers, unions and other groups.

In March, the Government announced that it would be reviewing its face-covering guidance in schools at Easter “in partnership with health experts, to decide whether evidence suggests that these measures can be eased ahead of the summer term”.

Confidential emails seen by Byline Times reveal that schools’ representatives receiving the questions believed that they were slanted toward providing the Department for Education (DfE) with grounds to weaken safety measures in schools, which are already far weaker and more inconsistent than other countries experiencing greater success in controlling their COVID-19 epidemics.

The questions were sent out by the DfE on 22 March with the requirement to respond in less than 24 hours. Sources who have received these emails were surprised that such an important Government review was requesting evidence at such short notice. They also noted that it was too early to assess how to relax the policy given that schools had only just re-opened two weeks ago. 

The DfE’s questions did not request any information on public health issues such as infection numbers from schools or the associated impacts on children needing to self-isolate at home, but instead focused on tangential questions including:

  • Staff uptake and adherence to the policy
  • Student uptake and adherence to the policy
  • The benefits of face coverings inside and/or outside the classroom, including on particular groups, such as SEND [Special Educational Needs and Disabilities] pupils
  • The disadvantages of using face coverings inside and/or outside the classroom, including on particular groups, such as SEND pupils
  • The impact on teaching and/or learning – either positive or negative

One source familiar with the DfE review process told Byline Times that its approach risked cherry-picking evidence to allow the Government to announce a weakening of safety measures, by “wrongly balancing” scientific public health evidence around mask efficacy with general sentiment. 

Several sources said that the DfE questions sent out were largely irrelevant to the experiences of parents, pupils and teachers on the ground, which has been overwhelmingly supportive of face masks and a strengthening, rather than a weakening, of safety measures. 

“No one wants children to have to wear face masks in schools,” said one source familiar with the evidence coming back to the DfE review. “But the overwhelming concern among pupils, parents and teachers is about public health. We’ve had really no reports or causes for concern that use of face coverings is disrupting learning or causing damage to children. Most people want to make sure that their kids are safe in school. The sentiment is that if masks help with that, so be it – until we can be sure we don’t need them based on what the science is saying.”


The details of the Government’s review are to remain internal. No information about the review, its methodology or its evidence-base – or even the experts being consulted – will be made publicly available. Instead, its findings are to be summarily announced as early as next week.

New figures published on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that more than 1.1 million people in Britain report suffering from ‘Long COVID’ – COVID-19 symptoms that persist for longer than four weeks. Of these, nearly 700,000 people described the symptoms as detrimentally affecting their daily life for more than 12 weeks, with nearly 500,000 reporting symptoms that last for more than six months. 

The most affected groups are those aged between 35 and 69; women, and people living in deprived areas. Of the categories of employment most affected, those working in health and social care were at the top (122,000 people); closely followed by those in “teaching and education” settings (114,000 people). The majority of those affected had no underlying health conditions.

The new figures bolster previous scientific research showing that schools play a central role in transmission of the Coronavirus, revealing that 2.5% of all those in teaching occupations are suffering from Long COVID. They also confirm key vulnerabilities for children, with 9.8% of children who were infected aged between two and 11, and 13% of those infected between 12 and 16 years old, developing persistent long-term symptoms. Some 7-8% of all children infected developed long-term symptoms lasting as long as 12 weeks or more.

The Government’s review of face coverings has come in the wake of a threat of judicial review received from the parents’ lobby group USforThem. The group, which Byline Times has previously revealed is part of a wider COVID-19 disinformation network coordinating with the Conservative Party’s COVID Recovery Group, claims that masks are causing devastating harms to children, and denies scientific evidence of their role in preventing transmission. 

According to Dr Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary healthcare and co-director of the Interdisciplinary Research In Health Sciences (IRIHS) unit at the University of Oxford, such claims have no basis in science whatsoever.

“There is absolutely no scientific doubt that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is airborne, that airborne transmission – which operates both at close quarters and at longer distances when there is shared indoor air – is the predominant way the virus spreads, and that masks reduce both droplet and airborne spread,” Professor Greenhalgh told Byline Times.

“The laws of science governing the spread of droplets and airborne particles do not change with the age of the individual who emits those particles. Therefore, if we remove the masking policy in schools before community transmission of the virus has been contained, the virus will spread through schools. There is some evidence that some children find some masks uncomfortable, just as some children find some shoes uncomfortable. Efforts should be made to find a mask that the child finds comfortable. There is no evidence that masks cause physiological harm – such as lower oxygen levels.”

A Department for Education spokesperson told Byline Times: “A decision will be made over the Easter period, in partnership with health experts, on the use of face coverings in secondary school and college classrooms when pupils return for the summer term.”

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