More than 300,000 students in England will be required to wear face coverings when schools reopen next week – although thousands of pupils could be told within days that they are no longer mandatory.
There was confusion among MPs after Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, announced in an 11th-hour U-turn that secondary school pupils in lockdown areas would be required to wear face masks in communal spaces from next week.
The government was also accused on Wednesday of providing “completely inadequate” support to schools in England after it emerged that they would receive just 10 Covid testing kits each before the start of term next week.
The kits were part of the government’s attempts to reassure anxious parents and staff but were immediately criticised by teaching unions.
The rule requiring face masks applies to about 330,000 pupils at more than 300 secondary schools in Greater Manchester, parts of Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Leicester.
However, some areas including Stockport are expected to have restrictions eased within days, meaning the mandatory face mask rule would no longer apply. There are nearly 15,000 pupils in the town’s 14 state-funded secondary schools.
The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, will announce which areas can be removed from the restrictions after his weekly “gold command” meeting with the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre on Thursday. Decisions taken at this meeting are usually announced on Friday, which would leave only one working day before most schools reopen on Tuesday.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said he would write to Hancock on Wednesday to ask for Stockport and Bolton to be removed from the restrictions after a consistent drop in the infection rate in the towns.
The Labour MP Lucy Powell said: “Speaking as the MP for Manchester Central, urgent clarity is needed from the government about which areas the face mask rules cover because headteachers and parents need this clarification.”
Stockport has the lowest infection rate in Greater Manchester. Nav Mishra, Labour MP for Stockport, said he was “cautious but not against” the restrictions being lifted but was concerned that the infection rate would rise when schools return next week.
On face masks, he added: “The level of ambiguity and lack of information [from central government] is just not acceptable.”
The leader of Bolton council has also called for the town to be removed from the restrictions after its infection rate fell to 12.9 cases per 100,000 people, the lowest level for a month. More than 19,000 secondary school pupils will be required to wear a face covering when schools return next week but that could change within days if restrictions are lifted.
William Wragg, the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove in Stockport, said there was cross-party consensus in Stockport that the borough should be freed from lockdown restrictions. He accepted there would be issues with cross-border confusion, with Stockport bordering Manchester and Tameside – where leaders accept that rates remain too high to lift the restrictions.
“Obviously the restrictions apply to where you are a resident as opposed to where you are going. There is no perfect system, it is always going to be possible to take issue with any aspect of it,” he said.
If Stockport comes out of lockdown, Wragg said it “would be up to the discretion of the headteachers” at the town’s schools how to deal with masks. Some Stockport schools have children from Manchester and Tameside. “It’s very difficult to issue guidance for every individual scenario,” he said.
Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, whose constituency straddles Stockport and Tameside, said: “I have a concern that half of my constituency is in one borough, half is in the other. There is a seamless continuation of urbanisation between the two.”
One street, Thornley Lane North, is in three boroughs, said Gwynne, and it was “bonkers” that people living in the Stockport section would have more freedom than other residents, he said.