Coronavirus: Parents pull children out of nurseries prompting fears epidemic could hit industry

Exclusive: ‘This kind of a crisis could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back’

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Friday 06 March 2020 20:16
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Parents in the UK have begun pulling children out of nurseries as coronavirus continues to spread, prompting fears that an epidemic could push early years providers to the brink of collapse.

A widespread shutdown of nurseries would leave families with significant childcare issues – but it could also force some nurseries to close for good as a result of financial pressures, nursery leaders have said.

UK health officials are moving towards the “delay phase” of their response to the outbreak. Measures, like school closures, may be ramped up to slow the spread of the virus.

Public Health England’s (PHE) current advice is for schools to stay open unless there is a positive case.

But families have already begun to take young children out of private nurseries over coranavirus fears.

Nursery leaders are concerned the industry could be significantly hit if the outbreak worsens as it is unclear whether financial losses incurred from potential closures would be covered in insurance policies.

Jonathan Broadbery, head of policy at the National Day Nurseries Association, said nurseries across the country are bracing themselves for probable closures as the number of confirmed cases increases.

He added that childcare providers will have no other choice but to shut their doors if just a few workers become sick as they are legally required to adhere to staff-to-child ratios to ensure children remain safe.

Mr Broadbery warned: “What we are worried about is if there is no support to keep those childcare businesses going during any closure, then they may not be able to reopen.

“A lot more nurseries are close to, or are in financial distress, and this kind of a crisis could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This could just tip them over the edge.”

He added: “Our members are checking with their insurers and coronavirus isn’t covered under the vast majority of standard insurance policies.

“There is a risk they will have to keep paying staff and parents may not want to pay fees if the nursery has been closed for two or three weeks.”

So far, the organisation is not aware of any nurseries that have had to close yet. But this week some parents have decided to keep their children at home as they are worried they will catch the virus.

“Parents are worried about a chance of infection. It hasn’t been linked to a known case. It is just parents as a precautionary measure saying, ‘I don’t want my child to go to nursery’. Nurseries cannot say you have to come in. It is not like a school where attendance is mandatory,” Mr Broadbery added.

Liz Bayram, chief executive at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, added: “Most providers, in particular, childminders, operate on low margins and closure, even for a few weeks, could have a significant impact on their sustainability.”

If providers have to close, it would leave parents who rely on childcare in a challenging position. Ms Bayram added: “We are encouraging our members to explore possible partnerships with other local providers who may have vacancies and can temporarily provide support.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “The level of impact that closure might have depends on how much support the government is willing and able to give providers.

“But of course, government funding isn’t the only source of income for settings and for many settings, the loss of parent fees would have a significant financial impact too.”

On the impact on working families, he said: “Many parents across the country rely on childcare to be able to go to work and so settings closing would undoubtedly have an impact on them, especially if there is uncertainty around when their provider would be able to open again.”

Mr Leitch added: “We are pleased that the Department for Education (DfE) has launched a coronavirus helpline for childcare providers, schools and parents, but what the sector really needs is clarity on what support they can expect to receive if the worst does happen and they are forced to close.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “The government’s action plan sets out current and possible future measures to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak that are proportionate and based on the latest scientific evidence. They will be continually kept under review and the impact of all measures will be carefully considered.

“We are aware of concerns about the position of early years providers in the event of any Covid-19-related closures and will work to minimise the impact on individual settings.”

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