With schools reopening this week after the Christmas holidays making it compulsory for students to wear facemasks it is feared such measures could affect their mental health.
A senior Tory said the regulation should take into account the wellbeing of children who feel uncomfortable covering their faces despite the ongoing threat to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee, made the controversial comment as children are expected to return to school later this week, but his advice was challenged by the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting.
Streeting told Sky News: “I think in terms of schools, if the choice is between having masks at schools or children missing schools in huge numbers, of course we want to keep pupils learning. That’s got to be the priority.”
The government has decided not to introduce any further restrictions as they believe, at this stage, data shows they are not needed to control the spread of the virus.
Health minister Ed Argar told Times Radio: “We need cool, calm heads.
“We need to look at the data and we need to do everything possible to avoid any restrictions.
“Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort. I’m seeing nothing at the moment in the data I have in front of me, in the immediate situation, that suggests a need for further restrictions. But that data changes day by day.
“I, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, are looking at that data every single day. And we keep a close eye on it.”
Halfon told the PA News Agency: “My concern about masks is, first of all, that… (children’s minister) Will Quince came to my committee in December and said that there was very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings.
“Even Jonathan Van-Tam said in November – so I’m not quoting from two years ago, before everyone knew what was going on – that masks were really inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children involving speech and facial expression, and that it’s very difficult for children with face masks.
“The (National Deaf Children’s Society) has said that they’re worried… that deaf children’s education will suffer disproportionately under the mask advice.”
Outlining his concerns over children being made to wear face masks Halfon said: “My big worry is that, whilst you’ve got to balance the risks of Covid which are minimal, thank goodness, to kids – and… we’ve got teachers and support staff vaccinated, many will have had the booster vaccination as well – so you’ve got to balance that on one side of the scale against the risks to children’s mental health, wellbeing.
“And there is a lot of evidence out there from Belgium, to Canada, to the United States, suggesting that masks on children have a damaging effect, or can have a negative effect on their mental health, their wellbeing, their ability to communicate, their emotional awareness.
“And that’s why I have worries about the mask policy.”
He continued: “The World Health Organization says there should be an impact assessment at the onset of mask-wearing, so this should have been done already by the department in terms of what happens when kids wear masks in school.
“The key question for me is… we say that, OK, shops, you have to wear them in shops, but you don’t have to wear them in offices. There is no requirement to wear masks in offices for adults. So why is there a requirement for children in schools, in classrooms, when children are at least risk from Covid? I don’t get it.”
At a question and answer session held in November deputy chief medical officer Sir Jonathan addressed the subject saying: “I can see that they could be quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children involving speech and facial expression. I think it’s difficult for children in schools with face masks.”
The government said the face mask restriction in schools is expected to remain in place until January 26 when the regulations will be reviewed.
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