The government recently announced a list of “critical sectors” in which workers can be exempt from self-isolating after coming into contact with someone with Covid but early years staff were not included in the list.
In a letter to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, seen exclusively by The Independent, three leading early years and childcare sector organisations in the UK warned: “The recent spike in the number of adults being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app, or asked to self-isolate after coming into contact with a positive case, is having a significant impact on many settings’ ability to support the families who rely on them.
“We are therefore deeply disappointed that the government has not recognised a need for early years and childcare practitioners who have been vaccinated to be allowed to continue to work, subject to daily Covid testing.”
The letter, which has been signed by the Early Years Alliance, which represents, nurseries, pre-schools, and registered childminders, among others, stated early years providers give children a critical “sense of stability and normality” at what they described as a “very difficult time”.
It also notes the choice not to exclude childcare providers from self-isolation measures could leave key workers, who have been expressly exempt from self-isolation to ensure other critical services are kept up and running, with no childcare.
Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant then Screwed, a leading campaign group, told The Independent the government’s decision to force early years staff to self-isolate is yet another example of the sector “being ignored and neglected” in the response to the pandemic.
She added: “Childcare, nurseries and early years has been completely and entirely forgotten. The fact funding got cut for the sector in December 2020.
“And early years staff have not been prioritised in the vaccine roll-out. Also in the first wave of the pandemic last spring, the government closed all nurseries.”
She argued the decision not to exclude early years staff from self-isolation will cause “chaos” with many services forced to temporarily close due to staff not being able to come to work because of being forced to self-isolate.
Ms Brearley added: “When the sector isn’t properly funded or supported by the government, what inevitably happens is ultimately it creates friction between parents and childcare workers. You are going to end up with parents who are furious with the nursery and feeling like they are not supported by their childcare provider.
“There has been no consideration for early years whatsoever in the pandemic. Now we are in a position where families are relying on childcare but many services in the early years sector haven’t got the finances to keep services running due to years of chronic underfunding from the government.
“There is very little point in exempting people from self-isolation if childcare isn’t included as people will not be able to go to work if they don’t have childcare.”
Ms Brearley noted the decision to force early years staff to self-isolate will mean they have to do so if a child in the bubble they are working in gets Covid as everyone in that bubble has to self-isolate even if they get a negative test result.
“They should be seen as important as other people being exempt,” she added. “They are as critical as other key workers. Childcare providers have kept the country going in the pandemic.”
Ms Brearley said the dearth of support for the early years sector is “symptomatic” of the government not taking childcare issues seriously as it is “all men making the decisions.”
“Many of the male ministers making the decisions around the table do not have to consider childcare because they have nannies or have someone else who sorts it out for them,” she added.
The childcare sector has been plunged into further chaos in the wake of the Covid crisis – with a recent study carried out by the Labour Party revealing almost 20,000 childcare providers are at risk of permanently closing their doors within six months.
In a major blow to childcare services, the government recently changed the funding model for nurseries, childminders and pre-schools following the sharp reduction in the number of children using providers since the pandemic.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Since July of last year, the early years sector has been considered essential. So essential that even when schools closed, our settings were asked to remain open to all children - in spite of the risks to providers and their families - to ensure the country continued to run.
“That’s why it is absurd that government would not now include those same people in this exemption for critical workers. Early years providers continue to offer an essential service throughout the summer months when schools are closed.”
The letter, which has also been signed by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years and the National Day Nurseries Association, notes childcare providers have implemented “rigorous safety measures” for pupils and staff.
“It also places a further financial burden on a sector already struggling with the impact of the pandemic on the sustainability of their business – putting parents’ access to early years and childcare provision at risk for the future,” the letter adds.
Over 110,000 people recently signed a petition urging the government to carry out an independent review into the funding and affordability of childcare in the UK.
A previous study by Pregnant Then Screwed found almost one fifth of parents have been forced into quitting their jobs due to the extortionate cost of childcare in the UK – with researchers saying it is predominantly women bearing this burden.
Before the pandemic the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) found the UK already had one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world.
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