[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:32 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:32 pm, 12th January 2021

It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Fleur Anderson on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important topic, and for the contributions of all Members who have taken part—but particularly to Jim Shannon, for mentioning the Northern Ireland situation. I enjoyed my childhood in Northern Ireland so much that I think I did P1 twice. He will get that.

As the hon. Member for Putney said, early years staff are, too often, unsung heroes. I should like to begin by offering my sincere and heartfelt thanks to the early years sector, which has been doing an outstanding job of supporting our youngest children throughout the covid-19 pandemic, in what I know are difficult circumstances. I spoke to people at the maintained nursery school in my constituency this morning. Our frontline early years staff are phenomenal, and they love and care for our children so much.

The early years experience is a vital part of a child’s education. It is when children develop the communication skills that set them up for life. Those skills cannot be taught online. Early years provision also, as we know, gives parents the ability to balance work and family life. The Government invest heavily to ensure that children can get access to that high-quality early education, which includes a universal 15 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds, the additional 15 hours for three and four-year-olds with working parents introduced under the Conservative Government in 2017, and, of course, the 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

The Prime Minister made the announcement last Monday, on 4 January, that early years would remain open for children during the national lockdown in England. That includes nurseries, childminders and maintained nursery schools, as well as nursery classes in schools and other pre-reception provision on school sites. It was with great reluctance that we restricted attendance at early years settings before the national lockdown in March. As I have said, early education enables very young children to develop the core building blocks of communication and social skills. They are the building blocks of life. We know that if a child’s vocabulary is underdeveloped by the time they start school, they are more at risk of falling behind and being unemployed in later life. They cannot catch up those years. It is hard to imagine how to teach those communication and development skills remotely in anything like the way that is possible for older children.

We also know much more about coronavirus and our understanding of the new variant is developing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, evidence has emerged that shows the very low risk of children becoming unwell from covid, even those with existing health conditions. There is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects children. Indeed, under-fives continue to have the lowest rates of confirmed coronavirus cases of all age groups. They are less susceptible. Evidence also suggests that pre-school children aged nought to five are not playing a significant role in driving transmission. That is partly because our youngest children tend to have the lowest levels of contact with others outside their household.

We took the difficult decision to restrict attendance in schools to all except vulnerable children and the children of key workers because additional measures were needed to contain the spread of the virus in the community. Doing that has enabled us to keep pre-reception provision open to all to support parents and to deliver that crucial care and education for our youngest children. We are planning to keep early years settings open unless the scientific or public health advice changes. We continue to monitor that very closely.

I know that there is a lot of worry about safety, so I want to be as clear as I can about the safety of early years settings for children and staff. Early years settings have been open to all children since 1 June. There is no evidence that the sector has contributed to a significant rise in cases in the community. The advice of Public Health England remains that the risk of transmission of infection is low, provided that early years settings follow the endorsed systems of control that have been in use throughout the pandemic. Those measures create an inherently safer environment for children, young people and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.

I met representatives of the early years sector last Tuesday morning immediately after the Prime Minister’s announcement and again last Thursday. One of the things they asked for was better covid testing for EY staff. The Department worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure rapid asymptomatic testing for all early years staff. The national roll-out of rapid testing, which was announced on Sunday, will support the Prime Minister’s announcement for early years settings to remain open.

Local authorities will be encouraged to target testing at people who are unable to work from home during the lockdown. On Thursday, I met the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to reinforce the importance of early years staff in the asymptomatic testing programme. An expansion of testing will help to identify more positive cases of covid and ensure that those affected can isolate to protect those who cannot work from home in our vital services.

My hon. Friend Steve Brine mentioned childminders. He is no longer in his place, but I wish his wife well. She does an important job. We are working with local authorities to put in place an appropriate route for childminders so that they can also access the asymptomatic tests.

Hon. Members have mentioned the vaccine. Those who are most vulnerable to the virus have to be prioritised for the vaccine. People working in early years who are over 50 or who are over 16 and in a higher-risk group will be eligible for the vaccine in the first phase of the programme. That includes all those over 50 or vulnerable and it will also include the early years staff who fall into those categories.

Alex Sobel is right to have written to me. I have to resay what I said just a couple of days ago in answer to his question. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which makes the recommendations for who should get the vaccine and in what order, has asked the Department of Health and Social Care to consider occupational vaccination in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. That will be a cross-Government piece of work; that Department will need to collaborate with other Departments. The Department for Education will have input into it and we will urge the need to prioritise our absolutely frontline staff.