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Nursery owners are calling on Government to take the need for proper childcare support for key workers more seriously and fund it properly because it could be the difference between life and death in the battle against coronavirus.
The Government needs to recognise that childcare is an essential service for NHS workers during the coronavirus pandemic, enabling them to get to work and save lives, and they should fund it accordingly, according to one desperate nursery owner.
Natalie Huntington is just one of many nursery workers who are desperate for financial support in the current pandemic. The National Day Nurseries Association says it estimates that only around 40-50% of nurseries in Wales are able to stay open for key workers.
Natalie runs Munchkins day nursery and after school club in Yorkshire. Her nursery is still open, but many have closed due to financial and staffing issues, despite being asked by the Government to stay open to provide childcare to key workers, such as doctors and nurses.
The Government says nurseries will still get early years assistance – mainly the 30 or 15 funded hours for three and four year olds and some disadvantaged two year olds provided in term-time only – and that it is providing financial support for businesses, such as offering them loans to tide them over.
Natalie says this response does not address the scale of the problem facing nurseries.
She told workingmums.co.uk: “I wrote to my local authority last week to express my anger. I was crying because I was so frustrated and I thought I need to tell them what it is like.”
She had just received a letter from North Yorkshire county council with a letter from her MP explaining what the Government were doing on childcare. “I thought ‘My God, they don’t have a clue what is happening’,” she says. “They are basically treating us like a business, not a service which is enabling key workers to go to work and save lives.”
She has been running the nursery and after school club for around 10 years with her friend Sally. She speaks proudly of her “fabulous” team of workers who she has had to place on temporary contracts because she cannot guarantee their hours and of the parents who they are having to charge even though they are not going out to work and cannot use their places.
“We are a nursery family and they are keeping us going. For them it is like going to Tesco, filling their basket, paying for it and taking all the food back. They should be refunded and we should be reimbursed by the Government. Otherwise we will close,” she says.
She adds that key workers are having to pay for more hours than normal as they are reliant on nurseries and cannot get childcare support from elsewhere.
“Why should they have to do that?” she asks. “Those with school-aged children don’t have to pay that extra money, but we are supporting schools with before and after school childcare. We are open 7am to 6.30pm to support key workers so schools don’t have to extend their hours.”
Another issue is the lack of protective equipment for nursery workers. Social distancing with small children and babies is impossible, for instance, nappy changing and calming a crying baby. The same goes for the parents of small children who, if they work in the NHS, will be in close contact with the coronavirus. Yet nursery staff have no protection.
And then there is food and other shortages to contend with – the lack of not only food, but wipes and nappies at supermarkets. Nursery workers get no priority access to supermarkets. Natalie speaks of sobbing in Sainsbury’s when she couldn’t find any pasta for the children.
Another nursery owner said: “We are staying open for key worker children at a financial cost to ourselves. We feel that this is important to keep the NHS running essential services.” She added that many closed nurseries were only staying afloat due to parents continuing to pay fees even if they are not using the nursery.
However, this was impacting the care she could offer key worker parents whose nursery has closed as they are also contracted to keep paying their original nursery and cannot afford to pay twice over. Moreover, some key worker children only have Government funding which only covers term time and if she takes more children, she will need to hire more staff, which increases her costs.
Financial survival is a key issue for many nurseries alongside providing an essential service for key workers. If they go under, that will mean huge childcare problems in the future.
Natalie says: “Head teachers are not being asked to take out business loans against the value of their homes to get them through the crisis. We should get 100% funding through the crisis, backdated, to cover bills such as private rents, food, utilities, fuel for dropping and picking up children from school, insurances and subscriptions and our staff should be paid in full and work on a rota system for safety.
We should not have to worry about all of this. My partner works in a coffee business. It’s not life and death. We are using our savings to keep open.
Nurseries are closing now; we need funding now. If we have to wait until April there will be even fewer nurseries open. The Government does not value childcare.
We are getting to the point of desperation. If we close and parents who are doctors and nurses cannot get to work people will die.”