We have given unprecedented support to early years throughout the pandemic, through block-buying childcare places, and through the furlough and other schemes. We are monitoring the situation very closely, and are keeping under constant review whether further action is needed. To support providers further, we have issued additional advice to make it clear that children who are temporarily absent from nurseries can be counted in this week’s census, even if they are ill or if their parents are worried about covid.
Nurseries and childcare providers in deprived areas are most likely to close, which is catastrophic for disadvantaged children. Coronavirus presents a significant threat to early years providers in Portsmouth, with many already struggling financially. What action will the Minister take to ensure we do not lose essential childcare places in less well-off communities as a result of the pandemic?
As I have said, we have given unprecedented support to the early years sector. It does an amazing job, and we are keeping the question of whether any further action is needed under constant review. The advice that we gave last week is really important, because this week is the annual census week, and it is really important that those providers know that they can count children who are temporarily absent, provided they remain open for them. That is really important advice to our early years providers.
With so many staff in early years settings having to isolate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to open the maintained nursery schools in my constituency, as they do not have surplus staff to rely on. What funding will be made available to mitigate that, so that support staff can be employed to cover staff who are shielding or self-isolating?
We are taking two actions urgently to support our early years. The first is the roll-out of asymptomatic testing for staff. Asymptomatic testing went live through the community testing system last week, and I have written to local authorities to ensure that early years staff are prioritised in their community testing. Secondly, if maintained nursery schools and, indeed, other private providers have a staff shortage that means they need to close temporarily, they can still count those children for this week’s census—just as they can in any year if they have a temporary closure due to, for example, a flood. They can still count those children, provided the closure is only temporary.
Many children’s nurseries in east Hull face severe financial difficulty from years of underfunding, and from exclusion from support during this pandemic. The Minister knows that childcare providers in disadvantaged areas such as east Hull are the most likely to close, and that that would be catastrophic for many young children, whose life chances are shaped by early education. Can she guarantee that we will not lose essential childcare places in less well-off areas such as east Hull as a result of covid-19?
We have already announced in the spending review that we will put additional funding into early years entitlements in the next financial year. That will allow us to increase the hourly funding rates for all local authorities by at least 8p an hour for two-year-olds, and by 6p an hour for three and four-year-olds; of course, those in areas of higher disadvantage get higher amounts of money. That will pay for a rate increase that is higher than the cost nurseries may face from the uplift to the national living wage in April.
Ministers are telling everyone to stay at home, yet early years providers are being told to stay open for as many children as possible or lose funding. This month’s funding changes mean that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders will be punished financially for having lower demand than usual, or for limiting their opening during lockdown, and 19,000 providers could close by summer as a result. Is that a price the Minister is willing to pay, or does she think those warning about this are wrong?
As the Opposition spokesperson knows very well, because I called her last week, we are providing that advice to settings to ensure that it is very clear that if parents are keeping their children at home because they are concerned about covid, settings can still count those children for the census, provided they are open. If they choose to close, they can furlough their staff using the other Government schemes. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely to see whether further support is needed.