Parents are crying out for clarity over the childcare implications as we move out of lockdown, but instead the picture seems to be getting muddier with every day that passes.
I spent much of yesterday reading requests for advice from parents about childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situations they find themselves in are difficult, if not impossible. They have been told to go back to work and they have no childcare. Let me outline a couple of scenarios for those people who are not aware of the problems many face:
This is from one mum who says: I have been looking after my baby and son while working from home. School is not open for my son and the nursery is closed. My husband works away. I have been told by my employer that I either have to find childcare or go on unpaid leave. I took annual leave for two weeks to give me some time to try to come to some solution, but I can’t find one. I’ve found it extremely stressful worrying about being on unpaid leave as I don’t know how long this will go on for and we can’t pay the bills if I don’t earn soon yet nursery is closed until at least July. My employer said they are not doing the furlough scheme. To add to my difficult situation my grandad recently passed away due to Covid-19 in the most horrific way, and I’m still grieving from this. What can I do?
Another says: I currently work in a supermarket. My daughter has been living with her grandparents so I could go to work as my shifts are varied. She restarts school next week so I asked if I could work school hours, but I have been refused. I have no other childcare. Her grandparents are shielding so it is not an option to have her going in and out of their home. I also offered to reduce my hours.
So what can parents who have no childcare do? Up to now, we’ve been advising on a number of options, in keeping with the guidance sent to us by the Government.
There’s furlough. The Government guidance says: “If you are unable to work, including from home, due to caring responsibilities arising from coronavirus (COVID-19), such as caring for children who are at home as a result of school and childcare facilities closing, or caring for a vulnerable individual in your household, then you should speak to your employer about whether they plan to place staff on furlough.”
The trouble is many employers don’t seem to either know they can use furlough in this way, there is a lack of clarity about whether public sector users can use it and some employers may simply choose not to use it because they need people back asap.
Then, if formal childcare is closed or not open for the hours you need or your parents used to pick up or drop off, there’s other childcare such as a nanny or regular paid babysitter who comes to your home [if you can afford it].
Otherwise it’s negotiating flexible hours with your employer – and many are flexing, but some are not – or using annual leave or unpaid leave, the last two being only very short-term solutions, if a solution at all.
Before the coronavirus crisis, many parents were using family members to look after children because they can’t afford paid childcare. Childcare costs have traditionally been a big reason why some women don’t go back to work after maternity leave, particularly if they have more than one child under the age of three. It just doesn’t make financial sense.
What if you can’t afford indefinite unpaid leave or childcare? You’re essentially stuck in an impossible situation. So the pressure is on to say schools are back. But there is a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the headlines and the announcements. Schools go back on 1st June, they proclaimed at the weekend. My son’s school will be back on 3rd June and then only till lunchtime and only for three classes [not his] and there will be no after school clubs, etc. It’s not quite business as normal. Yet a small number of employers seem to be treating it as such.
And now we have the complete muddying of the waters caused by the Cummings affair, made even muddier last night by Matt Hancock saying that the Government should review whether parents who have travelled for childcare reasons [presumably to a relative’s house so they can provide childcare] should have their fines reviewed. This instead of the Government admitting Cummings was in breach of the guidance.
Would that essentially mean that parents can use family members to do childcare if all other alternatives are impossible? If so, what might the implications be for all those parents who have been forced to spend weeks on unpaid leave because they have had no childcare? What about all those who are being threatened with job loss if they cannot come into work? The whole thing is a huge mess and getting messier by the minute and that matters for people’s lives at this crucial point in easing the lockdown.