Masks (World Health Organization Guidance)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 25 August 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

1. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest World Health Organization guidance that young people over the age of 12 should wear a mask to help prevent transmission of Covid-19. (S5T-02332)

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

In the light of the latest scientific and public health advice, including the World Health Organization guidelines, the Scottish Government has, after discussion with the education recovery group, updated the advice on the use of face coverings in secondary schools and on school transport. Unless specific exemptions apply, face coverings should now be worn in secondary schools by adults and pupils in corridors and confined communal areas where physical distancing is difficult to maintain. Face coverings should be worn also by all children aged five and over on dedicated school transport, in line with the guidance for public transport. The guidance on school reopening will be revisited to reflect that latest advice.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer and I welcome today’s announcement, although I am unsure why it could not have come before schools reopened, rather than two weeks into term. I accept that, were masks to be worn in class, there are legitimate issues with communication and learning, but the Government’s rationale for not including classrooms in the guidance appears to be that there is greater scope for social distancing there. That is not what pupils and teachers are telling me, which is no surprise, given that classrooms are no bigger than they were in March. What is the cabinet secretary’s message to teachers and pupils who cannot socially distance in their classrooms?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The reason why the guidance has been issued today is that the public health advice has changed. That was not the public health advice that we had when schools returned three weeks ago.

The rationale for our approach to classrooms, for which we are not recommending that face coverings should be utilised, is that, in the World Health Organization guidelines, there is to be a clear balancing of the public health benefits versus the potential for undermining education and learning. In such matters, there is a sensitive balance to be constructed and considered in that respect.

In response to Mr Greer’s question, I say that the guidance from the education recovery group is very clear: in a classroom setting, teachers should be exercising physical distancing of 2m from pupils to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus. However, if individuals wish to wear face coverings, they should be free to do so at any stage in the school day.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

The National Deaf Children’s Society, among others, has been calling for the increased use of clear face masks, which will now be particularly important in schools, for not only staff, but other pupils, so that those with hearing impairments and other additional access needs are not socially excluded.

Will the Government ensure that clear face coverings will be made available to all schools for staff and pupils, if they require them?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Greer makes a valid point. That is why we have encouraged schools to specifically look at the circumstances of individual children and young people, and make sure that their needs are properly taken into account in the planning for the delivery of education in the very different environment in which we are now having to operate.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I will give the Government the opportunity to clear up any potential confusion around the guidance. The language that is being used by ministers, as reported in the media, is “non-mandatory but obligatory guidance”, or words to that effect. Which is it? Is it guidelines that the Government would like schools to follow or mandatory regulations that schools must follow? There is an important difference between the two. If the guidance is not compulsory, does that mean that schools can choose whether to implement it? If the guidance is mandatory, who will enforce it, and who will provide the personal protective equipment?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Let me try to navigate my way through the issue, because I appreciate its complexity.

The guidance that is being set out today is to be applied in all secondary schools in Scotland without question, and the guidance specifies how it is to be applied. In communal areas and on school transport, the guidelines should be followed. There will be exceptions, for example for health reasons, including those that Mr Greer has just raised. There will also be circumstances in which young people might be concerned about face coverings. We are trying to create an approach that is consistent with the wider approach in Scottish education of encouraging compliance and working with individuals to secure their compliance, rather than having mandatory guidance that has legal force, which, frankly, would be alien to many aspects of the normal working of our schools. That approach is being taken to ensure that individuals can follow the guidance that is being set out by the Government in a fashion that is consistent with the way in which our schools habitually operate.

I hope that my answer gives Mr Greene the clarity that he seeks. We are trying to work with schools to make sure that they are as safe as possible for children, young people and staff.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, as my main concern is the issue of exemptions on health grounds for young people. I was concerned to see photographs from a school in my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency in the press last week. Given the change of direction, what comfort can parents and young people take from the guidance to make them feel safer?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

It is important that we consider this move, along with the other mitigations that are part of the guidance that has already been published. In the guidance, we set out the importance of physical distancing in schools, and the importance of hand hygiene, cleaning regimes and following cough etiquette in all circumstances.

We are adding an additional layer of protection through the wearing of face coverings in the circumstances that I have set out in my answer to Mr Greer’s question. There will, of course, be exemptions for young people who are unable to comply with the approach. However, the approach is designed to take every measure, based on the available public health advice, to make our schools as safe as they can be.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The WHO’s advice on face coverings in schools has changed, but its advice on testing is long standing. Why can we not complement the use of face coverings in schools with the routine testing of staff, as the GMB trade union has argued?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I announced in Parliament about two weeks ago that it is possible for staff to secure testing when they are concerned about Covid. A direct employer portal enables staff to access the testing, whatever their role happens to be in school.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

Last week, I made the case for extending the guidance on face coverings. The Government’s guidance was one step behind, so schools were forced to take the initiative themselves. I am glad that the education secretary has now progressed the issue. Most pupils are already familiar with wearing face coverings in public places. Is the Government advising that face coverings should be worn as soon as possible, even though the guidance will not come into effect until next Monday?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I encourage the wearing of face coverings by young people as soon as practicable. Beatrice Wishart makes the fair point that we are all accustomed to wearing face coverings in a variety of public settings, so there will be familiarity with the practice. I certainly encourage individuals to take that action as soon as possible, and certainly before 31 August.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Independent

I welcome this morning’s clarification from the cabinet secretary that children and young people with autism—I highlight my interest as a parent of an autistic child—will be exempt from wearing face coverings. How prescriptive does he expect the list of exemptions to be, given the plethora of conditions that might make it difficult for young people to wear face coverings? What steps will be taken to ensure that there is awareness of the exemptions, so that young people are not singled out for not wearing them and subjected to bullying?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Fundamentally, I think that it is important that schools, which know their pupils well, are able to exercise the judgment that will enable appropriate exemptions to be applied to the pupils who require to have them. That is best served by judgments in school, rather than by a prescriptive list from the Government.

The second question was about how young people with exemptions are treated. That is a sensitive issue. Mark McDonald raises the danger of young people being singled out or targeted because they are not wearing face coverings. We have to work in schools, which our educators are doing at all times, to create an atmosphere of mutual respect for individuals, so that the difference in circumstances that they face can be properly respected in how they participate in schools, because we want our schools to be safe and inclusive places for all children and young people in Scotland.