Boris Johnson lamented the possibility of “another rollback” of face masks in schools after councilors said it was “not worth a row” over why schools in Scotland would enforce them in the classroom but not schools in England.
In leaked WhatsApp messages investigated by the Telegraph, the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, also said No 10 did not want to change the “rule of six” for meetings to include children during the lockdown, even though another minister said there was “no strong logic”.
Discussing the issue of face masks in schools in a WhatsApp group with the prime minister, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, appeared to say there were no “very strong reasons” in each case, but Johnson was advised by senior aides that they will struggle to tell the difference.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has already announced that children will have to wear face coverings in corridors. In a group chat, Johnson said: “Guys, I’m going to do it [be] asked about masks in schools. Before we perform another inversion, may I have an opinion on whether they are necessary?”
Two senior advisers warned of conflicting communications advice. His communications director at the time, Lee Cain, said: “Given Scotland have just confirmed I’m going to find it hard to believe we’re going to hold the line. I would at least give yourself flexibility and not commit to rule it out… Also because we want to fight to not have masks in certain school settings.”
Simon Case, a senior official in No 10 who would become Johnson’s cabinet secretary, said that unless Whitty and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, were “willing to come out and say the WHO and the Scots they’re wrong, I think some nervous parents will. freak out about what’s happening in Scotland, but not in England.’
But Whitty conceded there was “no strong case against corridors etc., nor very strong case for” and then added: “I agree, well, it’s not worth arguing about.”
A day after the conversation, the government announced that secondary school children in areas with increased lockdown roles will have to wear face masks in the hallways. It included many parts of the North West, Yorkshire and Leicester.
In October 2020, the rule of six policy was challenged by Helen Whately, minister for adult social care, who said she wanted to “relax [it] to children under 12 … it would make such a difference to families and there is no good reason for it.”
Hancock said the No 10 “don’t want me to go there for that… Also for the curfew – they don’t want to move an inch”. The rule of six – where gatherings of more than six people were against the law except in certain circumstances – remained in place for much of the rest of the pandemic, except for the strictest lockdowns where no social mixing was allowed.
Whately defended her former colleague in the Commons on Wednesday, saying “selective extracts” of leaked WhatsApp messages were misleading.
Hancock issued a furious response to the leak of his WhatsApp messages, which he had previously given to journalist Isabel Oakeshott to write his book. Oakeshott, who is said to have signed an NDA, said she had made them available to the Telegraph in the public interest.