Early years lockdown crisis at Havering nurseries

Nurseries, preschools and playgroups in Havering are warning that parents may be left without childcare when they eventually return to work if they do not receive more support.

Early years providers, who care for children from birth to age five, are still being told to stay open to all families despite schools being closed to most children.

While many of the borough’s providers do want to stay open, they are taking a big financial hit and say they need on-site COVID tests and priority vaccines to keep their staff safe.

The number of early years providers across the country reporting COVID cases has risen from zero on June 1 last year to 1,267 on January 4.

Emma Reynolds of Scallywags Day Nursery in Hornchurch, said that early years providers were ineligible for most emergency COVID grants.

She said: “I closed for three months (at the start of the pandemic) and lost about £70,000. That’s why we are happy we can stay open but, on the other hand, we are anxious for our staff.

“I have had five staff test positive for COVID since November. If staff keep getting sick we won’t have enough to stay open.

“We are now getting lateral testing but staff are having to go to a hub in their lunch hour, it would make a lot more sense if we were treated like schools.

“We are being told to carry on as normal as if we have got fairy dust and everything will be ok. If we are staying open then support us: give us testing on-site and priority for vaccines.”

She added extra Government funding for early years expected in April will amount to “2p per child”, adding: “You have to laugh or you are going to cry.”

Rebecca Jeffries, from Fairytales Playgroup in Rainham, said the number of children attending has plummeted during lockdown, as many parents are furloughed or working from home.

She said: “It’s had a massive financial impact. We have had to close on Mondays and Fridays because we have not got enough children.

“A lot of us don’t know how we’re going to survive. We’re not the only playgroup who has had to reduce.

“There has also been a massive rise in infection rates. It looks low for children under five but that’s because parents do not want to put them through the trauma of testing.”

The playgroup operates out of a council-owned library, paying more than £135 rent a day, but said Havering Council has so far refused to give it a rent holiday.

She said: “We are an outstanding provision in a deprived area. They know how vital we are for these children but there’s no financial support.

“We are the underdogs of childcare but we are critical. Parents that work in the morgue or who are nurses need us. I’m sending my own daughter to school so I can be here.

“It’s hard knowing we are doing everything we can to remain open but that it’s all at a negative financial impact to the business. I do not want to close but we need support and funding.”

She warned that, if providers are allowed to fold, parents may have no available childcare when they return to work, noting it takes six months to register a new business with Ofsted.

She also argued that the benefits of childcare on social and language skills are well-documented and worries how children are going to adapt to a return to school.

She added: “We’ve been sharing as much information as we can but some parents are juggling working from home and helping siblings with homework, we can’t put that expectation on them.”

Cllr Robert Benham, the council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for education, children and families, said Havering Council was sympathetic to providers’ situation.

He said: “We know how tough it has been for early years providers during the COVID-19 pandemic and how uncertain everything is at the moment.

“We are continuing to support them with a number of packages and have been on hand to help them get access to what they need at this time.

“This includes providing discretionary grants and a COVID Recovery Planning Guide. We are also making calls to managers every fortnight to keep in touch with them.

“The roll out of (free) PPE started January 25 and those providers who ordered early have already received their supplies.”

A Department for Education spokesperson added that “current evidence” suggests children under five “are less susceptible to infection”, justifying the decision to keep early years open.

They added: “We encourage local authorities to prioritise appropriate testing for early years staff through their community testing programmes as they are being established. 

“We are funding nurseries as usual and, where nurseries do see a drop in income from either parent-paid fees or income from DfE, they are able to use the furlough scheme.”

Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter