[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:47 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:47 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson on securing the debate and making an excellent opening speech. Although she has been here quite a short time, she is becoming an exceedingly accomplished parliamentarian.

“Underfunded for years, future funding cut, and now expected to work at a time where the new variant is more transmissible, when most others are instructed to stay home. The decisions this Government is making will be the nail in the coffin for many providers. There will be a shortage of childcare space when society returns to more normal times.” Those are not my words; they were sent to me by a manager of an early years setting in my constituency. They deserve better.

On Saturday, I sent out a short survey asking for childcare providers, staff and parents to respond in advance of this debate—although I did not know at that time that I would be chosen to speak, and certainly not quite so high up on the call list. Just before the start of this debate, we had 748 responses. I would be happy to pass them on to the Minister, because I can only use a small selection in the debate today.

It is not before time that we discuss early years settings in this place. Since the start of the pandemic, while the subject of schools has rightly been discussed and debated widely, early years settings have been largely ignored by the media and neglected by the Government. During the first lockdown, nurseries and providers wrote to me. They were anxious about the future, stuck with very little Government support and dependent on the continued support of parents. The Early Years Alliance warned in October that as many one in six settings could close as a direct result of the lack of support given during the crisis.

Nurseries in my city and across the country relied financially on parents continuing to pay their fees, often at significant cost, while their children remained at home.

A little over a week ago, early years settings were again plunged into crisis. Having opened up all the schools on Monday, the Prime Minister then reversed that decision on television, closing all the schools from Tuesday morning. However, he asked all the early years settings to remain open. Early years staff in my constituency were and still are very concerned that their safety is deemed to be less important than that of their counterparts in primary and secondary schools.

Amanda, a staff member in an early years setting in my constituency, said:

“I don’t think this decision reflects how important early years staff are. We feel forgotten and very put upon. We feel unprotected. Does our health not matter? Social distancing in early years is impossible.”

Amy, a childminder in Leeds, said:

“We can’t wear PPE, we can’t socially distance and we are regularly coughed, sneezed and spat on as part of our job. I accept that puts me and my family at greater risk. However, there is no recognition of this from the Government. It feels as though early years staff are being thrown to the wolves for the sake of keeping parents working.”

Just hours after the Prime Minister’s announcement last week, early years settings in my constituency were in crisis. Staff were scared and did not feel safe, protected or valued by the Government. Some of those settings chose to close on Tuesday anyway, to assess the situation fully and to conduct a proper assessment of the risk that staff were being asked to take.

That risk is significant. Jill, an early years teacher in my constituency of Leeds North West, described the risk that she takes every day. She told me:

“I am 56, with a history of cancer and lung problems. My husband is 75, and I am my mum’s support. She is 85 and has not been vaccinated yet. I am very worried that contact with so many children who cannot socially distance puts myself and my family at risk.”

Lindsay, a childminder, said that she feels obliged to earn money and play her civic part. However, she is juggling the home schooling of four of her own children and had to tell them that they cannot visit their father, who is receiving palliative care, because of the children she is obliged to invite to their home for her work.

The Government say that there are good reasons for making an exception of early years settings. They point out that for children in that crucial age group no online substitute is available for nursery or pre-school education. That is true; there is no doubt that another lockdown would have significant detrimental effects on young children, who all depend on their routine and their social interactions. Also, early years settings provide a lifeline for children who have difficult or chaotic home lives, and are a key weapon in reducing educational inequality. And for parents, the reactive, unpredictable and knee-jerk decisions that have been taken have caused huge anxiety for them and their families. Many of them are worried about the effects of another closure; they are not only worried about their own working lives but about the psychological effect on their children.

However, these facts prompt important questions. Why is it that the Government recognised the value of early years education only after they asked staff to go on the frontline? Why has almost every other frontline worker been promised early vaccination except for these vital members of staff? Last week, I tabled a written question asking the Minister to prioritise early years staff in the vaccination effort. She wrote back, saying:

JCVI”— the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation

“advise that the first priorities for the covid-19 vaccination programme should be prevention of mortality and the maintenance of the health and social care systems. As the risks of mortality from covid-19 increase with age, prioritisation is primarily based on age. Regarding the next phase of vaccine roll-out, JCVI have asked that the Department of Health and Social Care consider occupational vaccination, in collaboration with other Government Departments. The Department for Education inputs into this cross-governmental exercise and I hope that educational staff, including those in early years settings, will be vaccinated as soon as possible.”

In short, there is no saying when, or if, these members of staff will receive the vaccine. It has been clearly stated by respondents to my survey that the urgent need for the vaccine for frontline early years staff is of paramount concern. Those members of staff need a firm commitment to and a timeline for vaccination. Asking them to wait for the outcome of a cross-governmental exercise is simply not good enough.

Yesterday, less than 24 hours ago, I stood here in Westminster Hall and spoke in a debate before Steve Brine, but I think that we were of one mind in advocating a 24-hour vaccination programme. I repeat this call now. There are very few early years staff who I have heard from—as I said, there have been 748 responses to my survey—who would not go for a vaccination out of hours to ensure that they were protected from the virus. If we cannot provide 24-hour vaccination, it would not be morally defensible to ask staff to go to work when they do not feel safe.

The second thing that early years staff and providers, as well as parents, need from the Government if early years settings are to remain open is clear guidelines, and measures to ensure that those guidelines are being met. The working environments on which people are reporting back to me are patchy. Many early years settings have ensured that they have small bubbles and good safety procedures, but I am also hearing worrying reports of bubbles of up to 40 children, and very little protection for staff. PPE must be made available for all staff in early years settings and mask-wearing must be a requirement for every parent or other visitor to such settings.

Thirdly, we need clarity about the risk. We need to understand the full science behind every Government decision, especially when asking people to work on the frontline. Many workers in childcare settings worry about the accuracy of information on early years contraction. After all, we know how difficult and unpleasant tests are to administer ourselves, let alone to a toddler with a temperature.

Finally and crucially, early years settings need a commitment on funding. In this year of all years, the funding of a setting should not depend on 2020 or 2021 attendance. Settings where parents have had to withdraw children to protect them and staff should not be punished or suffer financially. I want to underline the point made in a letter written by Leeds City Council to the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment. It calls for funding to be based on 2019 attendance, with a view to a sustainable, long-term funding model for the sector.

As Helen, a provider in my constituency, warns, many early years settings are already on a very tight budget and cannot afford to open with reduced numbers and income. There is a real possibility that many groups will be forced to close permanently. This is a question of value. We know how crucial early years settings are. We know how crucial the staff are. We cannot ask them to work in an environment where they simply do not feel safe. There does not have to be a binary choice between protecting staff on one hand and ensuring provision on the other.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we cannot afford to undervalue our key workers and key institutions. We cannot wait until we are back in this place after another crisis. We must ensure the financial future for our early years settings and improve outcomes for staff, families and, most crucially, children.

I want to end with a quote from Nikki, a childcare provider in Leeds. She believes that, once it is safe to do so, we must all visit settings in our communities. She said:

“MPs need to listen to staff and owners when we say we need help, to listen to the voice of children and see first hand how hard staff work, with no regard for themselves, to ensure that children in our care are cared for, loved and reassured.”