All settings must comply with health and safety law. They should follow our guidance so that systems of control are in place to reduce the risk of transmission for pupils and staff, and we have bespoke guidance for special schools, alternative provision and early years settings. Furthermore, to keep covid out of the classrooms and other settings, we have expanded testing to schools, pre-schools and nurseries.
Covid cases in early years providers have nearly doubled since the first week of January to the highest level so far seen during this pandemic, and many nursery workers and childminders have been understandably worried about continuing to look after all children in lockdown, without a proper explanation of why this is safe and without a clear plan to ensure that providers can access proper mass testing and the personal protective equipment they need. Why have the Government done so little to reassure them?
The earliest years are the most crucial point of a child’s development, and we know that caring for our youngest children cannot be done remotely. The current evidence continues to show that pre-school children under the age of five are less susceptible to covid and unlikely to have a driving role in transmission. All the data that we base decisions on is public, and further scientific evidence was shared just last week.
Ten days ago, there were five covid cases in different nursery settings in Warwick and Leamington—the worst for many months. If the Government want to keep early years open, how does the Minister think nurseries can remain viable without mass testing, FFP3-grade PPE or, indeed, the financial support that was available in the first lockdown?
This Government are committed to supporting the early years, and we will be spending about £3.6 billion on early years funding this year, but to provide extra safety, we are rolling out home test kits for all those in nurseries and pre-schools—the staff in nurseries and pre-schools—from 22 March.
Social distancing is impossible in early years settings and special schools, where staff often provide close contact care, and it has been a nightmare for them to operate at high capacity in lockdown, with many staff off sick or self-isolating. Vaccinating school staff over half-term and prioritising key workers such as early years staff, once the most vulnerable have been jabbed, would have relieved this pressure, protected staff and helped to keep children learning, so why did the Government miss this open goal?
The top priority for vaccines must be to protect those most at risk of dying or being hospitalised by this hideous disease. It also involves protecting those who are caring for those most at risk. That could include, for example, a carer of a clinically extremely vulnerable child, but it would not necessarily include everyone who is working in an early years setting.