The decision to keep nurseries open and close schools and universities may be a political one rather than a scientific one, an expert has suggested.
The comments come as nursery leaders say there is fear and confusion over how safe the settings are, and call on the Government for reassurance on the evidence behind the decision to keep nurseries open.
Sage member Professor Calum Semple said that under the current circumstances, every opportunity to remove social mixing and work mixing of human beings is “vitally important”.
The virologist told BBC Breakfast: “So if a political decision has been made here to keep nurseries open in order to keep the essential staff at work, then that could be tempered by restricting the nursery capacity to those essential workers.
“But if we’ve got to the point of closing the universities, secondary schools and primary schools on the grounds of public health, then I would be looking to close all other non-essential activities.
“And it may be that a political decision has been made here that nurseries are essential. But it’s not a scientific one.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said these are worrying times for parents, nurseries and staff.
She added: “Throughout this pandemic nurseries have been operating as safely as possible to ensure children have access to early education and parents are able to work.
“Nurseries want to keep open so they can continue to support children and give them a safe and nurturing place during this lockdown.
“However, the Government are 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.”
Ms Tanuku said 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”.
She continued: “We all know it’s impossible to distance from toddlers and babies who need close care and contact.
Virologist and SAGE member Calum Semple argued that the decision was political, not scientific.
This is simply not acceptable – the safety of the early years workforce and their families cannot be treated as an afterthought in the middle of a global pandemic.
— Early Years Alliance (@EYAlliance) January 5, 2021
“Therefore early years staff must also be a priority for the vaccine to enable them to continue on the frontline providing support for families.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said that before the announcement many early years practitioners were already worried about continuing to work.
He added: “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.”
The national lockdown in England announced on Monday means that all primary and secondary schools and colleges will move to remote learning, except for the children of keyworkers or vulnerable children.
However, early years settings such as nurseries and childminders can remain open, and existing childcare bubbles will be allowed to stay in place.
University students will not be allowed to return to campus and will be expected to study from their current residence.
In-person university teaching will only take place for a small number of critical courses, including medicine, dentistry, teacher training, veterinary science and social work.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Early years settings remain low-risk environments for children and staff and there is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children.
“Keeping nurseries and childminders open will support parents and deliver the crucial care and education for our youngest children.
“We are funding nurseries as usual and all children are able to attend their early years setting in all parts of England.
“Where nurseries do see a drop in income from either parent-paid fees or income from DfE, they are able to use the furlough scheme.
“Working parents on coronavirus support schemes will still remain eligible for childcare support even if their income levels fall below the minimum requirement.”
The DfE said it was closing schools not because they are unsafe but because additional measures are needed to contain the spread of the virus.
It added that children aged five and under have the lowest rates of coronavirus of all groups.
Evidence suggests pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are not playing a driving role in transmission, it added.
According to the department, early evidence from Sage showed that early years provision had a smaller relative impact on transmission rate than primary schools, which in turn had a smaller impact than secondary schools.
Additionally, Public Health England advice remains that the risk of transmission and infection is low if early years settings follow the system of controls, which reduce risks and create inherently safer environments.