[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:11 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:11 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson on securing this timely and important debate. I also concur with Steve Brine on the stopping of Westminster Hall debates. That is a huge concern; I do hope we are allowed to scrutinise the Government, especially during the pandemic.

On 4 January, the Government finally announced a national lockdown and asked secondary and primary schools to remain closed, while simultaneously asking early years setting to open. The new variant of covid-19 has been estimated to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously circulating form of covid-19, and it is spreading far more quickly.

We know, and the science tells us, that children can spread the virus to their parents, families and communities. We also know that it is almost impossible to socially distance when working with young children in early years settings. To quote the science: Anthony Costello, SAGE member, Professor of International Child Health, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, and a former WHO director, said in The Mirror on 9 January:

“We are in a national crisis with a pandemic out of control. We should have no nurseries open.”

Chris Whitty on Radio 4 on 11 January encouraged parents not to send their children to nursery if they do not need to.

The Government have left early years settings to conduct their own risk assessments, without providing them with the safety blanket of regular testing. The Government failed to prioritise regular and mass testing for staff and practitioners in early years settings and, even today, they still remain open without that support. Further to that, the early years sector has had to face the challenges arising from covid-19 and the associated costs with no increase in funding. I have been contacted by many early years settings in Bradford West, including the Midland Road nursery and Lilycroft nursery school, who are facing immense financial pressure and need the Government to act now.

In 2020, maintained nursery schools, along with the rest of the early years sector, were noticeably excluded from the Government’s £1 billion catch-up funding, despite the fact that early intervention is widely accepted as one of the most effective strategies to address gaps in learning. Last year, maintained nursery schools were also barred from applying to the coronavirus fund, which was intended to assist with extra costs incurred by schools during covid-19. I was informed by an early years practitioner in my constituency that the school she represents had already spent £20,000 from very tight budgets to cover the unplanned costs in staffing and resources directly resulting from the pandemic.

The current lockdown is likely to change the number of children attending early years settings, with a number of parents making the tough decision to keep children at home. That is likely to spell ruin for the sector, as the Government have decided to change the funding entitlement on current occupancy of early years settings rather than pre-covid occupancy levels. The early years sector should not be worrying about extra costs arising from covid-19 and a funding model that is not fit for purpose, given the risks to the safety of staff and overstretched budgets. The Government must urgently review funding for early years as a priority and provide additional funding to the sector.

It appears that the current restrictions and the changing nature of the virus mean that additional funding and a review of the current funding model for the early years sector is urgently needed. Indeed, statistics from the DFE show that the percentage of maintained nursery schools in deficit increased from 3.5% in 2009-10 to 17.7% in 2018-19. The time for the Government to act is now. Will the Minister commit to rethinking the funding model for the early years sector? Will she commit to providing additional funding to cover the cost of covid-19? Finally, will the Government prioritise testing for staff and practitioners to ensure that working environments are safe and that children and families are protected? It is not good enough that early years settings have been asked to remain open and survive without a lifeline.