- No child under 24 months should wear a face mask, according to coronavirus rules the department of social development published late on Friday.
- But children aged between two and five "must be encouraged" to wear masks at early childhood development and aftercare centres.
- The World Health Organisation directly advises against that.
- If circumstances demand face masks for children that young, the WHO says, a parent-type figure should be in line of sight.
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"No child aged 24 months or younger may be required to wear a face mask due to the associated risks", according to new rules for childcare centres published by social development minister Lindiwe Zulu late on Friday.
However, any child "aged two to five years must be encouraged to wear a face mask", albeit while "taking into account the child's age and developmental abilities".
The rules are specific to early childhood development (ECD) and after-school care centres that fall within the regulatory jurisdiction of the department of social development – and that puts them directly in conflict with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In guidance on children last updated on 21 August, the WHO advises that children under age five should, generally, not wear masks.
"This advice is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance," the body says.
If masks must be used for some reason, the WHO says, perhaps because children will be in close contact with someone who is ill, their use should be closely monitored. More closely than a teacher in an ECD centre can manage.
"In these circumstances, if the child wears a mask, a parent or other guardian should be within direct line of sight to supervise the safe use of the mask," says the WHO.
Even for children up to the age of 12 the WHO recommends adult supervision in putting on and taking off masks, times when the proximity of hands to face make for a higher than usual risk of transmission of the coronavirus.
Only children older than 12 should effectively be treated as adults when it comes to masks, the WHO holds.
The American Centres for Disease Control (CDC) continues to recommend only that masks not be used by children under two, though it acknowledges there may be "challenges, particularly for younger students" in a school setting.
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