Teenagers in Scotland could be forced to wear face coverings in classrooms until next year after the SNP capitulated to teaching unions and rejected expert advice to relax the mask mandate.
In a major reversal, the Scottish government said controversial guidelines that mean secondary school pupils must cover their faces throughout the day will remain in force indefinitely.
The move came days after leaked draft guidance suggested SNP ministers were about to announce that pupils would only have to wear masks in communal high school areas from this month.
It means Scottish teenagers will continue to face some of the harshest rules in society despite being at low risk of serious illness from Covid and advice that school transmission “is not a major driver of overall case numbers”.
Experts on an advisory group set up by the Scottish government had backed a relaxation in rules. More than 90 per cent of teachers are fully vaccinated, while case numbers among children have declined and are projected to continue falling.
However, the country’s most powerful teaching union, the EIS, opposed the changes and lobbied for a delay to the proposed relaxation.
Larry Flanagan, the general secretary, said: “The EIS has argued for great caution in any easing of school mitigations, especially in light of continuing high levels of infection and the incomplete roll out of vaccinations for pupils.”
Shirley-Anne Somerville, the SNP education secretary, said on Tuesday that the mask rules would remain unchanged “for now” to allow more teenagers to be vaccinated. She said she wanted to relax rules at the “earliest possible time”, but admitted the announcement would disappoint pupils.
However, an insider with knowledge of discussions said they believed it was likely the mask mandate would now remain until at least Christmas.
“The [advisory] group was advised that because of the fall in virus rates and possible harms to mental health, we could move to baseline mitigations after the October holidays,” the source said. “That was the clear view, but the unions resisted it and wanted a delay. The response to them was if we’re not going to do this now, then when?
“We’re now moving into winter and cases are expected to rise, so what’s the chance they’ll be removed this side of Christmas? I’m not sure it’s particularly high.”
The Scottish government said the chief medical officer had supported the “cautious” approach called for by unions. However, its advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues has called for relaxing mask rules to be a “priority”.
Nearly half of 12 to 15-year-olds have had a dose of a Covid vaccine, along with three-quarters of 16 and 17-year-olds.
Michael Marra, Labour’s education spokesman, claimed staff and pupils had been treated “shamefully” after the leaked guidance raised hopes that masks would become optional.
Oliver Mundell, the education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said the U-turn would come as a “massive disappointment” following “strong indications” that the rules would change.
“Scotland’s schools should have been a priority for the SNP but, with face masks in classrooms remaining, young people have once again been sent to the back of the queue,” he said.
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