The Government has said childcare settings can relax their child:staff ratios amid rising Omicron cases which have forced some nurseries to close or reduce their hours due to staff shortages.
The Government has clarified that nurseries can relax their staff to child ratios amid rising cases of Omicron leading to staffing shortages, closures and reduced hours opening.
Official figures show Omicron cases at nurseries and childcare settings reached 3,697 in the week before Christmas. This compares to a peak of 2,357 cases in one week in January 2021.
The sector has been calling for urgent support. Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Reports of positive Covid-19 cases in early years settings were already skyrocketing before the Christmas break, but here we are, a week into January, with daily testing for some sectors, a staffing fund and the call for retirees to return to the profession for schools, but not a word about support for early years.
“Given that there is no requirement for under-fives to isolate or take daily lateral flow tests if they have been in close contact with a positive Covid case, many in the early years are understandably deeply concerned about their ability to protect themselves, their colleagues and their loved ones from the virus, especially given that those who ask children to stay home in that instance could face lost fees and funding as a result.”
Leitch said that nurseries had been badly treated in comparison to schools. He stated: “There has been much discussion on the need to safeguard schools from this latest Covid-19 wave, but ignoring the needs of the early years sector will cause huge disruption for parents, employers and, of course, young children as well. With the end of this crisis still seemingly a long way off, the government must immediately set out what it plans to do to ensure that early years providers are able to remain both safe and financially sustainable through this outbreak and beyond.”
In response the Government clarified that the pandemic is considered an exceptional circumstance and therefore childcare ratios can be relaxed. Leitch said the clarification was welcome, but warned nurseries to take care that it did not compromise children’s safety and wellbeing and to exercise the “utmost care and caution, with any temporary changes underpinned by robust risk assessments”.
He added: “With the early years workforce already under extreme pressure, moving to a situation where already-stretched staff teams are expected to look after a greater number of children is not a long-term solution.” And he said the sector would not be under such pressure if it had not entered the pandemic in a precarious state due to years of underfunding.