Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said face coverings are only mandatory in English schools in local lockdown areas as he defended the latest government U-turn which will see some children told to wear them.
Late on Tuesday evening, just one week before most schools reopen, the government made a switch in policy by abandoning advice that pupils should not wear face masks in English secondary schools.
The Department for Education (DfE) now advises in areas under local restrictions - such as swathes of Greater Manchester - that face coverings should be worn when moving around corridors and communal areas.
"It is only in those local lockdown areas that it is going to be required in a mandatory way," Mr Williamson insisted to ITV News.
The education secretary tried to defend the government's frequent U-turns, saying the public "would want to see a government that was willing to be able to change and adapt".
He explained why so many last minute switches in policy had been made during the coronavirus pandemic, saying "sometimes we have to adapt to the fact it is unprecedented times and we do have to change our course of action".
At the suggestion that the UK had been much slower to adapt than other countries, Mr Williamson said: "No, not at all, we've led the way in our fight against coronavirus".
Teaching unions have welcomed the Government's U-turn on face coverings.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School & College Leaders, said the rule change gave teachers flexibility to decide their own rules.
What do the new recommendations in England say?
In local lockdown areas face coverings should be worn by staff and students moving around schools in communal areas and corridors from September 1.
Should new local restrictions be imposed, schools will need to communicate “quickly and clearly” the new arrangements to staff, parents and pupils.
All schools and colleges will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed – such as when the layout of a school makes it difficult to do so.
Where a student or staff member is struggling to access a mask, or if it soiled or unsafe, the guidance says that schools should take steps to have a “small contingency supply” available, adding no-one should be excluded on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering.
Exemptions to the new measures include those who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability, or if a person is speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate.
He pointed out that schools differ in a range of areas from the size of the corridors to communal spaces, and in the safety plans that headteachers and governors have put in place.
Mr Barton said: “I think that ultimately to be able to say in a school – ‘yes we will’ or ‘no we won’t require you to wear face coverings’ or ‘if you want to wear one fine but you really don’t need to because other things are more important’.
“I actually think that reflects the way the English education system traditionally has worked, giving more responsibility to headteachers who know their context and are trusted by their communities.”
Face coverings in school will not be mandatory, the government said, but headteachers have the discretion to make them compulsory in communal areas.
Coverings will not need to be worn in classrooms, because other protective measures will already be in place and they might affect learning, it added.
Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt reported on the government's U-turn shortly after it was made
The new guidance came after pressure from teaching unions and followed Scotland’s announcement that secondary pupils there will be required to wear face coverings in between lessons.
Post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland will be asked to wear face coverings in corridors and other communal areas, Stormont’s education minister Peter Weir said on Tuesday.
A decision on face coverings in schools will be made in Wales on Wednesday.
Just this week Education Secretary Williamson insisted measures being adopted by schools to limit the spread of coronavirus meant masks were not required, and a Number 10 spokesperson had said there were no plans to review the guidance.
But speaking on Wednesday, Mr Williamson said a “cautious and careful approach” had been taken by the Government in order to get children back to school.
“At every stage, what we’re focused on is making sure all children return back to school in September.
“We don’t want to be seeing children … wearing masks in schools up and down the country, but in certain areas where it’s necessary, where we’re in local lockdown.”
He added: “We’ve seen the move welcomed by unions in terms of clarity that it brings, because there was some concern in the teaching community, quite understandably, when they saw the advice come out from the World Health Organisation.”
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would consider changing the guidance but would "look at the changing medical evidence as we go on".
“If we need to change the advice then of course we will," he added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) published new guidance on the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools.
In a statement they said “children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a 1-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area."
Full guidance has not yet been published, but is expected “shortly” the department said, and will come into effect from September 1.
In a warning that advice could change again, the DfE said stricter guidance could be issued for schools nationally if the rate of transmission increases across the country.
The advice will also apply to further education colleges and will be reflected in guidance to universities, the department said.
It will not apply in primary schools because the risks to children in those settings are lower, the DfE said.
How the rules differ across the UK's nations
Scotland has not only adopted the WHO guidance on face coverings for secondary school pupils, but has gone further by asking all children aged five and over to wear them on school buses.
Nicola Sturgeon changed advice in Scotland after an outbreak at a Dundee school saw 19 staff members and pupils infected with coronavirus.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said a decision on schoolchildren wearing face coverings will be made on Wednesday, but current guidance says masks are not being recommended.
Mr Williamson told ITV News the "very, very last thing in an area that will be closed is a school," adding how England will not move "back to a situation where you have a national closing of all of our schools".