Close nurseries to all except vulnerable and key worker children, urges UNISON

Elliot Chappell

UNISON has called on the government to close nurseries to all except vulnerable children and those of key workers, after it was decided that early years settings would remain open during the lockdown in England.

Boris Johnson announced a fresh lockdown, including the closure of all schools and colleges, on Monday evening. But he specified that nurseries can open under the rules – although they could not do so in the first lockdown last year.

Labour-affiliated UNISON has now called for early years staff to be made a priority in the vaccination programme and for mass testing, and argued that employees should not be made to go into work until safety measures are in place.

The union said such protections should be extended to employees still going into schools to provide in-person teaching for the children of key workers and ​for vulnerable ​pupils and students throughout the national lockdown.

UNISON’s head of education Jon Richards said: “Keeping nurseries and other pre-schools open puts staff and communities at risk. Social distancing is impossible with young children and the government has yet to publish the scientific evidence to justify ​nurseries being treated differently to schools.

“The decision seems ​to have been taken with little regard to the health and safety of ​employees. Ministers must treat ​nurseries the same as schools, as in the first lockdown. Staff must be ​a priority​ for vaccinations and mass testing.”

Labour has urged the government minister for children and families to “set out clearly and in detail the scientific basis of the decision to keep nurseries open when primary schools are moving to remote learning on grounds of public health”.

In a letter sent to Vicky Ford today, shadow minister Tulip Siddiq requested set out the following questions for the nursery staff, childminders and nannies who will “fear for their safety with coronavirus infection rates so high across the country”:

  • Will the decision to keep early years settings open during this national lockdown be kept under review or considered only when the lockdown is reviewed in mid-February?
  • Will the government commit to regular testing of staff in all open early years settings, including private, voluntary and independent providers?
  • What consideration has the government given to extending the Covid workforce fund to early years providers, many of whom have been struggling with staff absences?
  • What additional personal protective equipment and support will be made available to nurseries and childminders?

Siddiq told the government minister: “Early years providers and staff are once again being asked to provide an emergency childcare service during this lockdown – they must not be punished for doing so.”

The shadow minister for children and early years also asked for clarification on who will be able to access the early years provision during the lockdown and urged the government to commit targeted financial support to the sector.

She added: “Allowing early years settings to stay open will not be enough to ensure their survival, as there were already 20,000 providers at risk of closure within six months after the spring term funding changes.

“To proceed with these changes would be a death knell for many nurseries and childminding businesses, and I urge you to rethink this now completely untenable decision.”

The Prime Minister’s statement on Monday evening instructed people in England not to leave home except for a few “limited reasons” such as shopping for essentials, exercising, getting medical treatment and escaping domestic abuse.

The new restrictions to halt the spread of the virus include the U-turn closing primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges, as Johnson conceded that they “act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer welcomed the national lockdown and declared that his party would support the restrictions. He emphasised the seriousness of the situation facing the country and urged people to “pull together”.

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