Around half of early years staff do not feel safe in their current working environment, a survey suggests.
Nearly one in 10 (9 per cent) nursery and preschool staff – and one in 12 childminders – have tested positive for Covid-19 since the beginning of December, according to an Early Years Alliance (EYA) report.
More than three in five (63 per cent) early years workers believe there is a moderate to high risk that their whole setting may need to temporarily close in the coming weeks due to staff shortages, the poll finds.
Coronavirus: Teachers 'almost twice as likely to get Covid'
The EYA is calling on ministers to take urgent action to ensure that staff working in nurseries, preschools and childminding settings in England are safe amid the pandemic.
Regular lateral flow tests should be used in all early years settings and staff should be prioritised in phase two of the vaccination programme as anything else would be “reckless and irresponsible”, it warns.
Early years settings in England have been told to remain open to all children during the lockdown, but primary and secondary schools are closed – except for the children of key workers or vulnerable pupils.
In the survey of 3,555 early years and childcare workers in England, more than half (54 per cent) of childminders – and 48 per cent of nursery and preschool workers – said they do not currently feel safe at work.
Coronavirus: EYFS 'treated as the poor relations in education'
Dr Amelia Massoura, of Stepping Stones Pre-School in Sittingbourne, Kent, said four out of six members of staff have contracted Covid-19.
She said: “We feel that there is a lack of evidence to suggest that children do not spread the virus and that practitioners are being put in a very vulnerable situation. It is also very disheartening to be treated, again, as the poor relations in education.”
The majority (94 per cent) of nursery and preschool workers believe early years staff should be prioritised in the second phase of the vaccination programme, according to the joint survey with research agency Ceeda.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the EYA, said: “These shocking findings should, without a doubt, be cause for serious concern. While we know that early years settings are low-risk environments for children, it seems that no one has been asking whether or not the same is true for those working in the sector.
“With Covid rates among early years practitioners so high, it is no wonder that so many in the sector don’t currently feel safe going into work every day.
“We know that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have worked incredibly hard to ensure that they offer a safe environment for those children still accessing care and education – but someone needs to be doing the same for them, and so far, the government has failed to do so.”
Respondents to the survey also raised concerns about the financial impact of the coronavirus on their long-term sustainability due to lower parental demand.
Calls for more government support
More than half (51 per cent) of nurseries and pre-schools and 35 per cent of childminders expect to be operating at a loss at the end of the spring term, based on current levels of government support.
This week, ministers were warned that thousands of early years providers could be forced to close by the summer if they are only awarded funding based on the number of children in attendance this month.
Early years organisations are concerned that settings will not be able to receive funding for the children who do not attend this spring term in light of the government’s “stay at home” messaging.
Mr Leitch added: “Early years providers are the only part of the education sector that the government has asked to remain open to all families. It is surely not too much to ask for the protection – both practical and financial – needed to ensure that we can continue to do so?
“For weeks now, the government has been talking about how important the early years sector is, and what a valuable role providers play in supporting both children and parents.
“There is no excuse, then, for the government to drag its feet in taking the action needed to ensure that all providers are able to operate safely and sustainably, both now and in the future.”
Shadow minister for children and early years Tulip Siddiq said: “The predictable result of the Conservatives’ incompetence and neglect is that early years staff are seriously concerned about their safety. Nursery workers and the families they support deserve a plan to keep them safe, including proper access to testing.”
She added: “With many settings being forced to close due to the health crisis and others warning that they may soon follow suit, the government must not punish providers financially for taking safety precautions.
“They must urgently pull back from the brink of funding changes that could lead to viable early years providers going bust.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Keeping nurseries and childminders open will support parents and deliver the crucial care and education for our youngest children.
“Current evidence suggests that pre-school children (0-5 years) are less susceptible to infection and are unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.
“We encourage local authorities to prioritise appropriate testing for early years staff through their community testing programmes as they are being established.
“The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has asked the Department of Health and Social Care to consider occupational vaccination in the next phase of vaccine rollout, in collaboration with other government departments. The Department for Education will input into this.”