Early years settings to remain open during third lockdown, raising fears about safety and funding

Kathy Oxtoby
Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Safety and funding concerns must be addressed by Government for providers to get through the new lockdown, early year leaders say.

The Government is asking 'a lot of childcare providers'.
The Government is asking 'a lot of childcare providers'.

Early years leaders have voiced fears about the safety of the sector and stressed the ‘critical’ need for adequate financial support, following the Government’s guidance yesterday that nurseries and childminders will remain open during a third lockdown.

The Prime Minister’s announcement that new national restrictions would be in place from 5 January, included confirmation that early years settings can stay open for business.

Vulnerable children and children of critical workers can also ‘continue to use registered childcare, childminders and other childcare activities (including wraparound care)’, the Government stated.

Providers ‘cannot be hung out to dry’
Responding to the news, early years leaders said nurseries and providers ‘cannot be hung out to dry’, criticised the Government’s lack of support for the sector and raised concerns about its safety and funding.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said that many early years practitioners were already ‘incredibly worried’ about continuing to work during this period.

‘It is unacceptable that yet another Government announcement has been made without reference to any scientific evidence explaining how those working in the early years are expected to be able to keep themselves and their loved ones safe at a time when those in schools are being told that it is simply too dangerous to go to work,’ said Mr Leitch.

He said that with many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders already struggling to remain afloat, ‘any decision to close early years settings would have a huge financial impact on the sector’.

‘However, in the middle of a global pandemic that is causing hundreds to lose their lives on a daily basis, we also recognise the need to prioritise the lives and safety of practitioners, children, families and wider communities – and so far, it is not clear to what extent regard for the safety of the early years workforce has been outweighed by the government's desire to ensure that at least some parents are able to continue to work,’ he said.

Mr Leitch said the Government was putting ‘a huge responsibility on the shoulders of a sector they have, to date, provided with shamefully little support’, adding that if early years providers were expected to continue operating, ‘it is vital that Government takes the steps to enable them to do so as safely as soon as possible’.

‘That means priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations, and the establishment of a comprehensive mass asymptomatic testing regime in early years settings as a matter of urgency,’ he said.

Adequate financial support – both for those providers who are reliant on ‘free childcare’ funding and those reliant on private parental fees – also remains ‘critical’, he said, ‘especially given that early years settings are likely to see an even greater fall in the demand for childcare places as a result of the heightened restrictions announced today’.

‘Now is the time for the Government to do what it has failed to do throughout this pandemic and make early education and childcare a priority,’ Mr Leitch said.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the NDNA said nurseries want to keep open so they can ‘continue to support children and give them a safe and nurturing place during this lockdown’. However, she said the Government was ‘asking a lot of childcare providers and their staff, and have to recognise this’.

‘There is a lot of fear and confusion about how safe nurseries are. Parents and staff need reassurance from the Government about the evidence behind the decision to keep nurseries open to all. A lot of work has gone into making nurseries as safe as possible but this reassurance needs to come from the highest level,’ she said.

Ms Tanuku stressed that nurseries and early years providers, cannot be hung out to dry. ‘At the time when the Government and the country is asking the most of the sector – to remain open while all other education services are closed – they must support childcare settings. The short-sighted decision to cut early years funding to headcount only, must be reversed,’ she said.

With so many settings worried about the financial impact of higher running costs and reduced income, she said more targeted support needed to be made available to prevent wide-scale closures.

She added that for months the NDNA had been calling for better access to testing for early years staff, and with schools now closed, these settings ‘have to be a priority’.

‘We all know it’s impossible to distance from toddlers and babies who need close care and contact. Therefore, early years staff must also be a priority for the vaccine to enable them to continue on the frontline providing support for families.’

Ms Tanuku added:’Time and time again the early years sector have been asked to go above and beyond for children and to support working families. Ministers have to recognise the scale of what they are asking, support the sector and ensure nurseries can survive this lockdown.’

Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, said the Government’s change to the sector’s from this month had ‘pushed 20,000 providers to the brink of collapse’. 

‘The new lockdown is likely to wipe out demand for childcare, hitting providers’ incomes even further and pushing many nurseries and childminding businesses over the edge. 

‘The Government urgently needs to rethink this funding change and give the sector the targeted support it needs. Early years staff and families of young children also need reassurances about safety at a very worrying time,’ he said.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said it was a ‘very worrying time for families’ and called on the Prime Minister to give ‘millions of struggling families up and down the country some peace of mind by promising to stop the planned £1,000 cut to Universal Credit due in April’.

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