Nurseries in England have warned they could go out of business without urgent financial support during lockdown, while staff described feeling unsafe and unsupported as coronavirus hospitalisations soar.
During the first national lockdown starting in March last year, nurseries were closed and the government provided funding for all the children on their books, but this time they have been left open and money is only given for those who attend.
Many families are choosing to keep their children at home and private nurseries are not able to charge fees for children who are self-isolating, leaving them struggling to pay their staffing, rent and other fixed costs.
Tulip Siddiq, the shadow minister for children and early years, said early years providers were being placed in an impossible financial position and that nearly 19,000 could close within six months.
Pressure is also growing on the government to include nursery staff as one of the priority groups for the vaccine, after nearly half a million people signed a petition calling for their inclusion alongside teachers, forcing a parliamentary debate on Monday evening.
The health minister, Matt Hancock, acknowledged nursery workers had “a good case” on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, while hinting tougher lockdown restrictions could be introduced, including closing nurseries.
Following calls from unions last week for nurseries to close to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said on Monday that nurseries were remaining open to “allow people who need to go to work or need to do particular activities, to do so.” He emphasised the low risk of the virus to children, but nursery workers said they felt the risk to staff was being ignored.
Carly Morrison, who runs Little Lambs nursery in Bolton, said she was “absolutely shocked” when the government announced nurseries would remain open. She said: “The whole country has been instructed to avoid going out but my staff have been instructed to work with no social distancing, no PPE because we can’t wear it when we’re working with the children, no prospect of vaccinations and no access to priority tests.”
Dr Kate Hardy, an associate professor in work and employment at the University of Leeds, said: “In no other industry – other than perhaps sex work – are workers required to intimately deal with the bodily fluids of others without PPE.” Hardy, who is leading a project researching childcare during the pandemic, warned early years staff were not disposable.
“If nurseries and early years stay open, the abject failures of the government will be paid for with the lives and health of some of our most essential women workers. The sector may well face the devastation inflicted on care home staff during the first wave.”
A nursery worker in Hertfordshire said the rise in cases meant she no longer felt safe at work. “I absolutely adore my job and would do anything to protect the children. However, I feel this is now out of my hands to protect the children within my setting.”
She contacted the Guardian on the day she was forced to miss her grandfather’s funeral, as a result of caring for a child with a high temperature the day before. “I feel the government have completely let us down and we have had no recognition throughout this process.”
One deputy manager of a nursery in London said previous safety processes implemented on reopening in June “have completely gone out the window”, saying disposable gloves and aprons were only worn intermittently during the day and staff struggled to find time to clean and disinfect.
“All decisions appear to be economically motivated; the perception within the team – rightly, in my opinion – is that nursery settings are staying open simply to facilitate parents of young children working productively from home while their children are at nursery,” she said.
Brighton & Hove became the first council to ignore the government’s advice last Thursday after it told its council-run nurseries to close to all but the vulnerable children and those of key workers. However, the bulk of the sector consists of privately run nurseries, many of which say they cannot afford to restrict attendance.
Zoe Raven, who runs Acorn Early Years Foundation, also worries whether some of the 13 nurseries within her group will survive, particularly those in areas of social deprivation, which are struggling the most.
She said she was concerned about protecting her staff after government guidance was updated to specify that clinically vulnerable staff would not meet the criteria to be furloughed. “I have pregnant staff and those with other health conditions – there’s no way I can force them to come to work when there’s this potentially dangerous virus that they’re more susceptible to.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The early years’ experience is vital for a child’s education and it gives them skills like communication that they will use throughout their life and which is not something that can be taught remotely.
“Current evidence suggests that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission. Our youngest children have the lowest level of contact with others outside their households and so long as settings follow systems of controls the risk of transmission is low.”