The UK child care system is broken. It was broken long before the Covid-19 pandemic pushed it to crisis point.
Crippling underfunding, underpaid workers, and inflexible provision were pushing the child care sector to breaking point long before lockdown, fuelling growing inequality. Now, government inaction means a quarter of providers are facing closure, 71% are likely to be running at a loss and cutting back on places over the coming months.
As ever, mothers have been left to fill in the gaps, risking their jobs as the pressure to return to work only grows.
Now is the time to guarantee free, universal childcare to stimulate the economy
This matters not just for parents but for all of us, because the economy will never fully recover without guaranteed access to childcare. Parents will be unable to return to work with mothers most affected. Children’s vital early years development will continue to be overlooked, every sector will be disrupted. Meanwhile, those sectors predominantly staffed by women – like frontline health and social care workers, and teachers who have proved so vital to our nation’s survival during the pandemic – will be put under intolerable strain.
It is astonishing that, despite this urgency, despite the moral and business case, the government has so far failed to provide any meaningful support for the childcare sector whatsoever. It must listen to calls from the sector, trade unions, and parents and take action. But those whose suggestions are limited to nursery bailouts also do not go far enough.
Propping up providers that many parents could not afford before the economic downturn is not an answer on its own. Now is the time to guarantee free, universal childcare, to stimulate the economy, save parents’ jobs and ensure that all children are able to catch up on the crucial early years support they missed during lockdown. This policy would not just be a stop gap, it would be truly transformative.
Some people might feel that freeing women to work when they choose to and guaranteeing every child the best possible start in life is just a pipe dream. They are wrong, it is absolutely within our grasp. We don’t lack the funds – the cost of delivering universal free childcare is dwarfed by the billions the government has already committed to roads and other physical infrastructure and over the long term it would reap economic and social benefits that would cover the cost. What is lacking is the imagination, and the political will.
The Women’s Equality Party has a fully funded plan for universal free childcare. I am offering this plan to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, and to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. WE have done the heavy-lifting. All they have to do is find the will.
Mandu Reid is leader of the Women’s Equality Party.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.