THE charity which campaigned on behalf of children throughout lockdown and consistently challenged school closures and compulsory mask wearing, UsForThem, has a shocking story to tell.
It starts in August 2020, as schools prepared for the return of pupils, many for the first time in six months, when No 10 performed the first in a series of U-turns on masks in schools. Though their initial advice was that ‘masks could impede communication between teachers and staff and have little health benefit’, with teaching unions piling on pressure and the Scottish government deciding to recommend masks in their classrooms, the Government backtracked. Masks became recommended in communal areas but not in classrooms because, in the words of then PM Boris Johnson, ‘that is clearly nonsensical – you can’t teach with face coverings; you can’t expect people to learn with face-coverings’.
By March 2021 the Department for Education was recommending all secondary school pupils wear a mask in class. Most schools understood it to be a requirement and headteachers refusing to comply with the ‘guidance’ were pressured to conform.
Given the scale and speed of the U-turn it was not unreasonable to assume that there would have been a concerted effort to establish the evidence and to assess the science-based health risk. UsForThem was asking repeatedly through this period for the DfE to confirm the evidence basis for its policies. More recently it has asked the Department to produce any evidence that it had carried out a risk assessment before those decisions, or for confirmation ‘that someone somewhere in government had evaluated the harms and benefits of the policy for the millions of children it had impacted’.
The requests, it says, were ignored or avoided. In October this year, however, after repeated freedom of information challenges and after the DfE had claimed that its paper trail could not be disclosed ‘because to do so would constrain future policy-making processes’, officials finally provided access to some of their paperwork. Despite heavy redactions across the documents revealed by the DfE, the picture which emerges, they report, and ‘seemingly now confirmed by Matt Hancock’s diaries, is both astounding and deeply concerning’.
There was no assessment of harms for masks in schools under Sir Gavin Williamson. It appears that the firsttime an evaluation of the ‘masks in class’ policy was provided to the Education Secretary, at that time Nadhim Zahawi, was on December 30, 2021, 17 months after schools had first been advised by his department to require children to wear masks in schools.
The UsForThem article shows that any harms to children were of subsidiary importance to making adults feel safe: ‘The second notable revelation is that more than one third of the DfE’s evaluation document supporting its briefing to the Minister was given over to concerns about the risk of teaching unions encouraging their teachers to walk out of schools on the insidious grounds that schools had become dangerous places to work. Those concerns were given materially greater airtime in that December 2021 briefing document than the few paragraphs devoted to the risks of harm for schoolchildren.
‘It is evident that the adversarial approach of teaching unions had a material influence on the DfE’s advice to the Minister. The evaluation document notes that mandating the wearing of masks in school “could help reduce the risk of some teachers invoking section 44 of [the] Employment Rights Act”(a statutory provision which allows employees, exceptionally, to decline to work in materially unsafe conditions), a provision the National Education Union and Unison had apparently flagged to their members in January 2021. It also cited surveys recording that 71 per cent of Unison members had reported in March 2021 that masks in class were thought to be “an important safety measure”, and 79 per cent of respondents to a private schools survey around the same time had “noted benefits of wearing face coverings in the classroom”.
‘The deeply troubling implication of this limited and largely-redacted paper trail is that policy-making within the DfE was led not by a rational evaluation of scientific evidence or after a weighing-up of actual and potential risks and harms for children against known or perceived benefits. Rather, the motivation for the August 2020 policy appears to have been a direct response to union-led pressures, and perhaps also to incitements from some elements of the mainstream media, who seemed intent on shutting down schools in order to “protect” teachers and other adults.’
UsForThem states that the evidence on which decisions were based was shallow, inconclusive and tardy:
‘Also notable from DfE’s disclosures is the imbalance in the scant and woefully tardy risk-benefit analysis that had been done, and despite which the Minister had been encouraged to press ahead with the masking of schoolchildren.
‘The evidence provided in DfE’s briefing papers for the efficacy of masks is heavily caveated with benefits expressed in “can”, “potentially”, “tentatively” and “may” terms, rather than “will”. And the most substantial pieces of evidence referenced in support of masking children were an observational study of 123 schools carried out by the DfE over a period of 2-3 weeks in Autumn 2021 (a year after masks had first been imposed on schoolchildren), and a study carried out in the US in Spring 2021, from which had been extrapolated a tentative prediction that between 26,000 and 210,000 children might have been saved from missing school if they had been masked.’
The DfE’s document even acknowledges that its study did ‘not establish a causative connection between masking in classrooms and a reduction of missed school days’.
The article continues: ‘In any event, and crucially, none of the reports or studies relied on for Nadhim Zahawi’s briefing in December 2021 had been carried out in August 2020 when DfE made its first U-turn policy decision to introduce masks in classrooms in England and Wales. So the DfE appears to have been flying blind from August 2020 until late 2021 – with no idea about the risks and harms to which it was exposing kids by introducing what amounted to a nationwide mandate for masking schoolchildren for up to eight hours a day; something, incidentally, that the Government never ultimately demanded of the general population, or indeed of its own ministerial teams.’
The truly shocking thing is that the apparent scientific illiteracy of the government, who seemed to assume that a bit of cloth or paper could ever reduce viral transmission, was in fact no such thing. In the late summer of 2020, TCW published an article by Harold Armitage, a retired electrical engineer and filtration specialist who’d worked in the NHS, in which he set out the several reasons why face masks were an open invitation to a virus.
We naively thought this might educate the government as well as the public. But it turns out they knew all along. They simply decided to ignore the evidence put in front of them on ‘downsides’(i.e. harms) which included the admission that ‘masks will become highly contaminated with upper respiratory tract and skin micro-organisms’, such that used masks could become a source of viral transmission.
They knew, too, that wearing masks in class would affect children’s educational performance, cognitive abilities and attention as well as communication. But they didn’t care. As early as May 2021 Swansea university had revealed that masks were full of pollutants and unhealthy to wear. By December 2021 the Government was certainly aware of concerns about the safety and hygiene for children of wearing masks.
By the time that step 4 of Johnson’s ‘roadmap’ was reached on June 21, mask mandates had been in place for more than a year. Yet as Dr Gary Sidley set out in TCW, there had never been any evidence that masks reduce viral transmission in real-world settings, that wearing them was more likely to do harm and they were dehumanising – all of which raises the question of why were they in effect mandated for children?
UsForThem asks if they were introduced in schools ‘to make union officials, teachers and other adults feel safer’? Or was their purpose even more concerning – to increase compliance with the ongoing health tyranny and to ‘perpetuate elevated levels of fear’, as Sidley has put it?
Whichever of these factors played a part in the masking of schoolchildren, the UsForThem revelations confirm the brutally politically driven nature of the decision.
The best interests of children ‘were subordinated or ignored for the appearance of safety for adults, or worse still for reasons of political expediency and in particular to avoid the embarrassment of a walkout by teaching staff at the behest of union leaders’, UsForThem concludes.
Children have been treated ruthlessly and cruelly by adults. It is time the ministers responsible were called to account including Boris Johnson, the man with whom the final responsibility for the decision rested, who apparently weakly went with the totalitarian flow against his better judgment, though no one had more power than he to stop this appalling mass abuse of children.
You can read the full UsForThem report here.