English school children had to wear masks because ministers didn’t relish a political row with Nicola Sturgeon


Face masks were introduced in schools for the first time after Boris Johnson was told it was “not worth an argument” with Nicola Sturgeon over the issue, the Lockdown Files reveal.

Mr Johnson went ahead with the policy despite England’s Chief Medical Officer saying there were “no very strong reasons” to do so.

The policy was one of the most controversial of the pandemic and was not finally ended in England until January 2022 – 16 months later.

Ms Sturgeon had already announced the compulsory wearing of face masks in corridors and communal areas in Scottish secondary schools and in August 2020 Mr Johnson asked for advice on whether they were necessary in England.

In WhatsApp messages, Sir Chris Whitty appeared ambivalent when asked for his opinion. He said: “No strong reason against in corridors etc, and no very strong reasons for,” before adding: “So agree not worth an argument.”

The following day the Government announced that secondary school children returning to classes in September in areas subject to local lockdown would be required to wear face masks in corridors and communal areas where social distancing was difficult to maintain. The policy was later extended to the classroom.

Third of a million pupils affected

The guidance at the time applied to a third of a million pupils in secondary schools in Greater Manchester, parts of Lancashire, West Yorkshire, and Leicester. In other areas in England, schools were given the power to “recommend” face mask be worn in communal areas.

The decision prompted a backlash with one headteacher complaining that “masks mean mayhem”.

The communications show how Mr Johnson appears to have been bounced into the decision after Ms Sturgeon introduced the change in Scotland on August 25 2020. Schools north of the border begin the school year earlier than those in England.

Allowing devolved nations to set their own Covid policies is understood to be one of Boris Johnson’s pandemic regrets.

In a group WhatsApp on the same day, one week before schools in England were due to reopen. Mr Johnson wrote: “Folks I am about to asked about masks in schools. Before we perform another u turn can I have a view on whether they are necessary?”

Lee Cain, Mr Johnson’s director of communications, questioned why Downing Street would “want to have the fight on not having masks in certain school settings” while Simon Case, the permanent secretary for Covid who was promoted a week later to Cabinet Secretary, said “nervous parents will freak out” if children are wearing masks in Scottish schools but not English ones.