Nurseries must close: working class women are, again, made to pay the price of the pandemic

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Kate Hardy is Associate Professor in the Work and Employment Relations Division, and PI on the ESRC/UKRI funded project "The Impact of COVID-19 on the provision of early years childcare in England and Wales".

Dr Kate Hardy - Work and Employment Relations Division and CERIC

By keeping early years settings open to all children, the government exacerbates the Covid crisis and risks the health and lives of nannies, childminders and nursery workers.

On January 4 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown including school closures to address a spiralling Covid-19 pandemic with infection rates surpassing 60,000 a day. In the same announcement he nonetheless told nannies, childminders and nursery staff to go to work.

If primary and secondary schools are ‘vectors of transmission’, then so too are early years settings. Mounting scientific evidence points to increased transmission across children in all age groups. Our research on the effect of the pandemic on early years staff across the sector indicates that social distancing is impossible. In no other profession - other than perhaps sex work- are workers expected to be in close intimate contact with other bodies without appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The early years education and care sector is one of the most highly feminised, lowest paid sectors of the workforce – 92% of early years staff are women and they earn on average £7.42 an hour, well below the national minimum wage. Johnson’s announcement prioritises the economy over the health of some of the most vital, yet poorly paid staff in society.

Early years staff are not isolated individuals, they live with, support and rely on others. The low pay of nursery staff means they frequently live with older relatives to bring down housing costs. Many of these relatives are shielding or the workers themselves have shielding requirements. Many are parents. Childminder Emma Forming explains:

“I cannot home-school my own children while having to stay open for keyworkers and pre-school children. I could close but that will leave me with no income. So I’m left with no choice but to send my own to school and put them at risk so I can provide care for the pre-schoolers of non-essential workers.”

If early year settings remain open, it opens up multiple lines of transmission, posing a risk to staff and their own families.

There is no public health argument for keeping early years and childcare open. Far from it, keeping early years care open to all children will contribute to community transmission and an inability to bring down the R rate and potentially exacerbate the crisis as it spirals out of control in the UK. As a society, we cannot afford this.

So why do the government want to keep early years open? The refusal to provide free school meals until they were forced by Marcus Rashford, slashing of funding to SureStart and children’s mental health services underscore that children’s well-being is not at the heart of the government agenda. Professor Carl Temple, member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), agrees this is a political, rather than scientific decision, while Health Secretary, Matt Hancock told MPs nurseries are being kept open because they are private and “would otherwise go bust”.

Settings may “go bust”, without government support. The sector has been underfunded to the point of crisis for years. Funded places are paid just £4 an hour to educate and care for two and three-year olds. Coronavirus and lockdown measures have pushed an already fractured and volatile early years care system to the brink of collapse. Half of providers worry they will not survive the next year, with many of those closures likely to be concentrated in deprived areas.

This is a crisis of care which will place significant pressures on working parents – particularly women – and their ability to work, with knock-on effects for the whole economy. What has received much less attention or consideration is how the crisis of the sector and closures will affect its predominantly female workforce.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced one-off top up grants for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses worth up to £9,000 per property to help businesses in lockdown through to the spring. Bailouts and relief packages are available for culture, arts and hospitality, but not for essential childcare services which keep the economy moving.

No-one wants nurseries closed, least of all staff and parents. Closure will create a crisis of care for families, or more accurately: women, and will impact unequally on women’s incomes and career progression. But this government’s multiple and repeated, spectacular failure to manage this pandemic – relaxing restrictions too early and pushing people back into pubs and restaurants, and the abject failure of Test and Trace – has left us with no choice.

We cannot allow this escalating crisis to be paid for -yet again- with the lives and health of working-class women. If nurseries and other childcare settings stay open, the sector may well face the devastation inflicted on care home staff during the first wave. Nursery staff, childminders and nannies are not disposable. They are not acceptable collateral damage for the government’s failures.

This project - The Impact of COVID-19 on the provision of early years childcare in England and Wales - is an ESRC/UKRI funded project.

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