Masks back in classrooms and plans drawn up for workplace shortages

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    asks are returning to classrooms and plans are being drawn up for possible absence levels of up to a quarter of public sector workers as Omicron continues to spread across the country.

    The moves come after a health boss warned the “next few days are crucial” in the fight to reduce the impact of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant, as NHS staff work “flat out”.

    Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi acknowledged the variant “presents challenges”, but said the Government is taking steps to “bolster our support for schools” in an effort to minimise disruption when students return to their desks after the Christmas break.

    Face coverings are already recommended in communal areas (Danny Lawson/PA) / PA Wire

    Face coverings will return for secondary school pupils in England’s classrooms – having already been recommended in communal areas for older students and staff.

    But the supply of 7,000 new air purifiers for areas of schools where good ventilation is difficult has been branded “completely inadequate” by NEU teaching union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted, who said that with “over 300,000 classrooms in England they (the Government) have failed to provide an effective solution”.

    Education committee chairman Robert Halfon said mask-wearing would have a “significant impact on children’s wellbeing”.

    In comments in the Sunday Telegraph, the Tory MP said: “The Government needs to supply the evidence. If masks are not required in offices or restaurants, why are we getting young kids to put them on?”

    Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office said that although disruption caused by Omicron has so far been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”, leaders have been asked to test plans against “worst case scenarios” of 10%, 20% and 25% workforce absence rates.

    It follows a call in December from Mr Zahawi for ex-teachers to help with Covid-related staff shortages in the new year.

    Boris Johnson has tasked ministers with developing “robust contingency plans” for workplace absences as the Government acknowledged high Covid levels could hit businesses hard over the coming weeks.

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