More than half the nurseries in the north-west of England have been forced into a partial or full closure since the start of the summer, according to figures that highlight a Covid childcare crisis in parts of the country.
As many as 58% of providers surveyed in the region said that they had to close or partially close since the beginning of June, as high Covid case numbers saw staff or groups of children forced into isolation at home. More than half of providers in Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as the south-west, also said they had to at least partially close at least once.
Some have been forced into full closures multiple times as nurseries have been caught up in the so-called “pingdemic”. It has led to concerns that the lack of predictable childcare will be an extra brake on the economy and imperil a sector that was already struggling before the pandemic. There were more than 1,150 reports of Covid incidents by early years and childcare settings to Ofsted in the first week of July, according to official figures. It represented a steep rise from 135 incidents at the end of May.
Watch: Chicken and bottled water run low in Lidl amid 'pingdemic' record numbers
A survey of more than 1,000 providers across England by the Early Years Alliance (EYA), found that more than two in five nurseries, preschools and childminders have had to fully or partially close at least once since the start of June. Nearly a third (31%) have had to close in full at least once.
They are warning that without extending exemptions from self isolation for the sector, workers critical to keeping the country going during the pandemic are being prevented from doing so. The snap survey found that 87% of early years providers deliver places for critical worker families, where at least one parent is a critical worker. The recently published list of sectors where fully vaccinated workers may be exempt from isolation did not include those working in the early years sector.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the EYA, said self-isolation rules were “playing havoc not only with providers’ ability to remain financially sustainable, but also their ability to provide the care and education that working parents need”. He said nurseries and other childcare providers felt like “the forgotten sector”.
“The government has said that exemption list is intended to minimise the disruption caused by rising Covid cases,” he said. “Who exactlydoes it think is looking after the young children of NHS staff, carers, food workers and other critical staff, and ensuring they can actually go to work?”
Kimberley Woodward, managing director of Buttercup Corner day nursery based in Oldham, which has closed partially once since June, said it was a battle to maintain carer numbers. “How do critical workers continue doing their jobs if they have no childcare,” she said. “We are really struggling to staff safely with the numbers having to isolate. None have tested positive, and all have had two vaccinations. It makes no sense that our staff are sat at home when well. We take lateral flow tests twice a week, and more when necessary.”
Emma Bowskill, an Ofsted-registered childminder based in Nottingham, said she was “constantly worried and stressed about getting or being in contact with Covid”. She said: “If I have to close, I have more than 20 families that won’t be able to go to work, the majority of which are on the exempt list. It’s crazy.”
It comes just weeks after the EYA accused the government of “shamelessly, knowingly” underfunding the early years sector in England. It cited private government briefing documents suggesting the funding rates for the Conservatives’ free childcare offer for three- and four-year-olds are less than two-thirds of what the government believed was needed to fully fund the scheme.
A government spokesperson said ministers were hugely grateful to the sector for delivering crucial childcare during the pandemic. However, there are no plans to include its workers on the list exempt from isolating. “Throughout the pandemic we have provided the early years sector with significant support, including by increasing the hourly funding rates paid to councils for the delivery of high quality, free childcare places,” they said. “Testing remains important in reducing the risk of transmission of infection within settings and over the summer, early years staff should continue to undertake twice-weekly home tests whenever they are on site.”