The government has defended its decision to keep nursery schools open during the national lockdown in England amid union concern about staff safety.
Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said pre-school childcare settings presented “very little risk” and are Covid-safe, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating on Monday that primary and secondary schools had been “vectors of the new variant”.
The Unison union called for nurseries to close to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, while the Early Years Alliance has also expressed concern about keeping nurseries open.
Unison’s head of education Jon Richards said: “Keeping nurseries and other pre-schools open puts staff and communities at risk. Social distancing is impossible with young children and the government has yet to publish the scientific evidence to justify nurseries being treated differently to schools.
“The decision seems to have been taken with little regard to the health and safety of employees.
“Ministers must treat nurseries the same as schools, as in the first lockdown. Staff must be a priority for vaccinations and mass testing.”
Trade body the Early Years Alliance met with the Department for Education to ask why early years childcare providers in England were being asked to stay open while schools had been instructed to close.
The DfE said in response: “Early years settings remain low risk environments for children and staff.
“Evidence shows that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are not playing a driving role in transmission. There is no evidence the new strain of the virus causes more serious illness in either children or adults and there continues to be strong evidence that children are much less susceptible to severe clinical disease than older people.
“Childminders and nursery staff across the country have worked hard to keep settings open through the pandemic so that young children can be educated, and parents can work.
“We continue to prioritise keeping early years settings open in full because of the clear benefits to children’s education and wellbeing and to support working parents. Caring for the youngest age group is not something that can be done remotely.”
It said that childcare settings can be safe if nurseries follow the system of controls as advised by Public Health England.
Yesterday, trade unions called for the government to update workplace safety guidance to protect staff from new, more infectious, strains of Covid-19.
In a letter to the Health and Safety Executive, Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea says: “Despite some of the measures recently announced by the government, it remains the case that many of our members working in key public services will be required to attend their workplaces and work with clients, potentially putting themselves at risk of infection.
“I am sure you will appreciate this has led to growing and understandable anxiety among our members, regarding their own safety and that of their friends, family and the public they serve.
“This is particularly the case among disabled, Black, older, and those workers with underlying health conditions, who are at greatest risk of dying from the disease or having serious life changing outcomes.
“It is essential that these workers know that everything that is reasonably practicable is being done to keep them safe. Employers should be reviewing their risk assessments and the safety measures required.”