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From holiday childcare to part-time furlough, there are so many unanswered questions about how working parents are going to get through the next few months.
Every day we get a large number of requests for advice from parents. This week, like the last few, they have been mainly from people or their partners being called back to work and having no childcare. The assumption seems to be that childcare is available as schools and nurseries have “gone back”. This is, of course, not really the case. Only a few classes at primary school have gone back and, often not for full days. Some have afternoons or days off for cleaning. There are no after school or breakfast clubs. Family members cannot do pick-ups. A large number of nurseries and childminders are not back.
Then there are the school holidays. We’ve had people worrying about the lack of holiday clubs and saying they have used up all their annual leave. Schools are saying they anticipate things not being back to normal by September. And, of course, if there are local lockdowns things could change again. Many are being threatened with disciplinary action or told they have to go onto seemingly endless unpaid leave.
There are also the different quandaries faced by individuals. Many parents don’t want to send their children to childcare because of concerns for their or their wider family’s safety.
We are also hearing from more and more parents who simply cannot afford the childcare that is available and would have relied in the past on family members. These include key workers being asked to work longer shifts who feel they are being penalised because they have to pay for longer childcare hours.
Clearly employers are also in a very difficult situation and want to get up and running as fast as possible, if they can. Many appear reluctant to use the furlough scheme for childcare issues – and the time to register for it is fast running out. If they don’t want to use it, that leaves parents in an almost impossible situation, forced onto unpaid leave which they cannot afford even in the short term. Some employers may have flexed to avoid furlough, allowing employees to work early or in the evening or at weekends to make up hours, but how long is this sustainable?
Parents of very young children are exhausted. Others have allowed parents to work reduced hours, but again how long can this continue? Part-time furlough could be a solution here, but I was on a webinar yesterday and it became clear what a muddle it all is. The Chancellor announced the scheme last Friday, but he also said that employers need to furlough people before 10th June as the scheme will close to new joiners. The detailed guidance on part-time furlough doesn’t come out until 12th June. That means employers have to decide to furlough any staff not already furloughed before they know what it actually involves.
I’m not sure what the answer is to all the many childcare issues we hear about, but the problems are very, very real.
People also do not understand, for instance, why they can pay for a babysitter to come to their house to look after their baby, but their mum, who knows them, can’t come. Grandparents – who are healthy and under 70 – are getting fed up. They see their children completely stressed out and naturally want to help.
The longer all these issues hang in the air and there is no proper answer to them, for instance, some sort of recognition from government of the extent of the problem and a stronger steer on furlough for childcare reasons, the more likely it is that people will find it hard to adhere to government guidance, which cannot, of course, cover every eventuality. We’ve had the Dominic Cummings issue, which may or may not have been about childcare [depending on which version you read] and has not exactly helped things and this week we had the vision of MPs queuing up for hours to vote to force people to go to work when they can very well work from home, once again undermining the government’s own guidance.
A TUC report out yesterday called for urgent immediate action from Government to address the issues facing working parents, in particular working mums since they still carry the can for most childcare issues. It called for the extension of the furlough scheme for parents and more funding for childcare, particularly for those on low pay. More people need to add their voices to calls for action, but it is not enough to extend the furlough scheme in relation to childcare availability. Employers need to be encouraged to use it for these reasons.