Jelleke Vanooteghem via Unsplash

‘Masks are not suitable for under-13s’ poster remains on HSE website despite children’s mask mandate

A HSE poster which advises that face coverings are ‘not suitable for under 13s’ remains on the HSE’s website today as a resource despite the government’s new primary school mask mandate.

The government enforced mandatory mask wearing for children aged nine and up in primary schools on Wednesday despite warnings from representative organisations that many parents would resist the move. An organised protest is due to take place at Merrion Square tomorrow at noon in a show of opposition to the new rule.

Communication resources from the HSE which recommend against mask wearing for children remain in place on its website. One PDF publication, ‘Who should wear a face covering?’ advises who should wear a mask when attending children’s health services. The infographic poster categorises those who should and should not wear a mask in the hospital setting. 

The HSE says in the poster that ‘Children under 13 years old (unless clinically advised)’ should not wear a face covering, alongside others with breathing or developmental problems; unconscious people; those who experience discomfort or stress while wearing a mask; and those who cannot remove a mask without needing assistance.

Another poster promoting Ireland’s public health advice, which is guided by WHO and the ECDC, advises on broader settings. The poster, to be printed for use in public places, says that masks “are not suitable for under-13s or those who have difficulty wearing them.”

 

HSE poster – Credit: https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/news/newsfeatures/covid19-updates/partner-resources/covid-19-schools-and-parents-resources/who-should-wear-a-face-covering.pdf

 

A separate poster, which is specifically for primary and secondary schools, reinforces a message of opposition to masks for children. The poster states that children under the age of 13 should not wear a mask. The poster adds that medical masks should be “reserved for healthcare workers or patients in treatment.” It urges readers to remember that face coverings are only effective if used alongside regular handwashing, social distancing, the avoidance of touching the face, respiratory hygiene and the cleaning of surfaces.

HSE Schools Poster. Credit: https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/news/newsfeatures/covid19-updates/partner-resources/covid-19-schools-and-parents-resources/who-should-wear-a-face-covering.pdf

 

Many people, including parents of primary school aged children, vented their frustration with the rule online, which was agreed by the Cabinet on Tuesday shortly after being recommended by NPHET.

The Department of Education said students and staff not wearing a mask will be refused entry if a medical certificate is not provided to prove exemption.

One parent said that the rule was “inciting hatred” in Irish primary schools after his child was challenged in front of her class for not wearing a mask.

 

Another user directed their disillusion with the new rule to Taoiseach Michael Martin, who himself admitted yesterday that he was not entirely comfortable with the rule for those in third class and up.

“If mask(s) worked effectively we wouldn’t be here… You and gov have let the children of Ireland down,” the user told Mr Martin.

The critical comments come as the Taoiseach was challenged by Labour leader Alan Kelly about the mandate on Wednesday. Mr Martin admitted that the requirement that primary school children wear masks is not a rule he is “entirely 100% comfortable with”.

“It is challenging, deputy. I appreciate that. It’s not a place I am entirely 100% comfortable with, as a person, as a parent, and as a former teacher myself,” Mr Martin said.

“I’m very much alive to different situations in different schools. We have to be sensitive to all of that,” he said.

Questions have also been raised regarding the legality of the new rule. Mr Kelly pointed out that children have a constitutional right to education and queried what legal protection schools would have if they refuse a pupil entry if they are not wearing a mask.

“What is the legal basis for it and have you guaranteed that principals are legally protected here?” Mr Kelly asked.

“If they refuse entry of a kid into school, are they legally protected by this state? Because I know that the PDF that went out had no signature on it and wasn’t on headed paper.”

Questions in the same vein were asked on Twitter, with one user citing article 42 of the Constitution to claim the rule was in breach of the constitutional rights of children. Article 42 asserts that the state is required to provide education at primary school level without conditionality.

 

Political commentator Robert Burke said the mandate was “genuinely infuriating” and “wrong on so many levels.”

 

There was also wide support online for a letter, published in today’s Irish Times, from a Headmaster who said he had ‘deep concerns’ about the safe and effective use of masks for young children.

 

Mr Stephen McKernan is Headmaster of Castle Park School in Dalkey, Co. Dublin. In his capacity as an educator, Mr McKernan wrote: “They pose a negative impact on children’s social and emotional development and interfere with the actual process of teaching and learning.”

He continued, “In particular, they will have an adverse impact on children who have speech and language difficulties and for other reasons would find mask wearing a stressful occurrence.

“To be clear, in Castle Park School in Dalkey any child over the age of nine who wishes to wear a mask is welcome to do so, but it is not a requirement due to a lack of evidence, guidance or metrics that will steer its continuation.”

It comes as a University of Oxford Professor, Jim Naismith said that official UK data evidenced that face masks “made no meaningful difference” to infection rates. Prof Naismith said that despite England dropping its mask mandate in July and Scotland keeping mandatory masking in force, official data showed this “has made no meaningful difference” to infection rates, calling into question the effectiveness of masks for any age group.

Prof Naismith argues that reintroduced face mask mandates which came into force in England on Tuesday are “unlikely to have much of an impact” in reducing the spread of the new omicron variant. In the view of Prof Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, masks are largely pointless.

“The ONS survey results on prevalence shows that the Scottish and English approach to masking, although formally different since July, has made no meaningful difference to Delta,” Naismith writes.

“In both countries very high levels of prevalence have continued for months. Thus the new changes announced are unlikely to have much of an impact if Omicron does indeed spread rapidly,” he added.

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