Maya OppenheimTue, 9 February 2021, 12:25 am
New statistics from Ofsted show the number of nurseries, childminders and pre-schools reporting incidents of coronavirus almost doubled in the week starting 11 January. Some 2,357 providers reported positive Covid cases, a substantial rise from 1,267 in the week beginning 4 January.
While the government provides free lateral flow Covid tests for staff working in colleges, secondary and primary schools even if they do not have symptoms, they have refused to offer the same service for the overwhelming majority of the early years sector.
Lateral flow tests allow people to be quickly tested for coronavirus without using lab equipment and can pinpoint individuals with no symptoms who have Covid who may be unknowingly spreading the virus.
Nursery leaders have linked the absence of testing to outbreaks which they warned were putting staff and children at risk.
Nicci Atkinson, a senior staff member at Oaktree charity which runs one nursery and two pre-schools in Hampshire, told The Independent: “Not being able to do lateral flow tests impacts the ability to keep staff and kids safe.
“It has been an ongoing concern but this became real last week. A member of staff did a test which came back positive. They started feeling unwell so got a test and tested positive. If we had lateral flow tests they wouldn’t have come into work.”
Ms Atkinson said the nursery had been forced to send seven members of staff home as well as 27 children who had all come into contact with the employee who tested positive for Covid.
“We’re in a part of Hampshire which has high levels of deprivation,” she added. “We have a lot of vulnerable families and key worker families. We’ve had an increase in families involved with children services in the pandemic and this includes cases of domestic abuse. It also has a financial impact. We are a charity. We had to send those children home so we lose the money their parents have paid. And the staff sent home lose their income – all they get is statutory sick pay.”
She said not having such tests provided is “frustrating” and has a “knock-on effect” on parents, staff, and children as well as “causing chaos”.
Ministers are not providing Covid tests for nurseries, preschools and childminders in the private and voluntary sector despite such services constituting 70 per cent of early years provision.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of Early Years Alliance, which represents nurseries, pre-schools, and registered childminders, told The Independent providers in England were facing a “deeply worrying situation”.
He noted that despite telling such services to stay open to all families during lockdown, the government was “yet to offer providers any clear evidence around the risk of transmission”.
Mr Leitch added: “Given that reports of Covid cases doubled in a single week in January, it’s no surprise many early years staff do not trust the government’s claims that they are perfectly safe working in a close-contact environment when most people are being advised to stay at home.
“The fact that these figures have been released shortly after the government announced plans to expand the roll-out lateral flow testing in many workplaces, while still refusing to send these vital tests to early years settings, is even more appalling.
“If early years practitioners are not protected – through both direct access to asymptomatic testing and priority vaccinations – we will see more and more outbreaks in settings, leading to more and more closures: it is as simple as that.”
The childcare sector has been plunged into chaos in the wake of the public health emergency – 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 due to government funding changes.
Stacey Parry who runs a pre-school called Parrywood Childcare in Eastleigh, told The Independent: “We have had to close our setting for seven days because four out of five members of staff recently tested positive for Covid-19. In Hampshire, there are no community testing centres so we were unable to access one.
“The only way we were able to ascertain a positive Covid test was for staff to attend the normal drive-through centre for PCR testing after they have developed symptoms. This is going to be an ongoing issue for us in Hampshire as we do not have access to lateral flow testing or as I say community testing centres.”
In a major blow to childcare services, the government recently changed the funding model for nurseries, childminders and pre-schools to tally up with the sharp reduction in the number of children using providers in the wake of the pandemic.
The funding, which has now been axed, had been stopping many nurseries from going under in a childcare sector which campaigners say has been chronically underfunded by the government for years.
While Emma Harwood, a manager at Dandelion Education Limited, which has two nurseries in Norwich, told The Independent the early years sector was “massively neglected”.
She added: “We get £3.98 an hour for a child from the government which is laughable. All of our money goes on staff. There is no support for money for tests. And government funding is so low it means there is no surplus money for tests.
“We are lucky as we are outside so we are a safer option. A lot of nurseries have had to continuously close due to Covid cases and then parents want their money back – that has had a real financial impact on other nurseries. If you have 20-odd children and two adults inside, coronavirus spreads like wildfire and it is hard to social distance in an early years setting.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said early years workers are “working hard” to provide vital care and education which cannot be carried out remotely.
They added: “We are working closely with the sector to ensure timely guidance and support. Current evidence suggests that pre-school children under the age of five are less susceptible to infection and are unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.
“Critical workers in England, including early years staff, are being prioritised for asymptomatic testing through the Community Testing Programme, which is being rolled out to all local authorities. We are working urgently to secure the most effective approach to asymptomatic testing for the whole of the early years sector and discussions continue on how to expand this. We are funding nurseries as usual and 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.”