‘Pingdemic’ risks leaving critical workers without childcare as staffing shortages force four in 10 nurseries and childminders to close, survey finds

The government’s failure to include early years and childcare on the recently-expanded self-isolation exemption list could leave critical workers without the childcare they need to work, a new snap poll of over 1,000 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders conducted the Early Years Alliance has found.

The government recently published a list of sectors where fully-vaccinated workers may be exempt from isolation due to close contact with a positive Covid case, including food production and supply, veterinary medicines and energy. However, the list does not include those working in the early years sector, despite the workforce being defined as critical workers throughout the pandemic.

A snap poll of early years providers conducted by the Alliance on 28-29 July 2021, which received 1,043 responses, found that:

  • More than four in 10 (43%) nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have had to fully and/or partially close at least once since 1 June due to self-isolation requirements, with nearly a third (31%) having to fully close at least once.
  • 87% of early years providers deliver places for critical worker families (where at least one parent is a critical worker), with critical worker children accounting for 35% of total places offered on average.
  • For nursery and pre-school staff, the most common reasons for staff self-isolation were:
    • a household member testing positive or displaying symptoms (cited by 49% of respondents)
    • another known close contact e.g. a friend testing positive (32%)
    • being alerted of the need to self-isolated by the NHS Test and Trace App (31%)
  • For childminders, the most commons reasons for self-isolation were: 
    • Alerted of the need to self-isolated by the NHS Test and Trace App: 23%
    • Household member tested positive for Covid or displayed symptoms: 23%
    • Child or children at your setting testing positive for Covid: 21%
  • 93% of respondents believe that those working in the early years should be included in the list of critical sectors exempted from the rules on self-isolation due to close contact.

The poll also revealed that providers in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber have been particularly impacted by current self-isolation rules, with 58% and 54% of settings respectively forced to fully and/or partially close at least once since 1 June due to staffing shortages, compared to 34% of London providers and 33% of East Midlands providers.

Commenting, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said:

“When the government told the early years sector remain open at the start of year despite instructing schools and colleges to close, it said this was for two reasons: because early years settings were ‘low-risk Covid environments’, and because of the vital importance of early education and childcare.

“It beggars belief therefore that now, when self-isolation rules are playing havoc not only with providers’ ability to remain financially sustainable, but also their ability to provide the care and education that working parents need, we are once again the forgotten sector.

“The government has said that exemption list is intended to minimise the disruption caused by rising Covid cases. Who exactly does it think is looking after the young children of NHS staff, carers, food workers and other critical staff, and ensuring they can actually go to work?

“The early years sector is a critical part of our national infrastructure and should be treated as such. The government simply must include the early years workforce on the self-isolation exemption list, before the vital services we provide are put at any greater risk.”


"How do critical workers continue doing their jobs if they have no childcare? We are really struggling to staff safely with the number of staff having to isolate. None have tested positive, and all have had two vaccinations. It makes no sense that our staff are sat at home when well. We take lateral flow tests twice a week, and more often when necessary." - Kimberley Woodward, managing director of Buttercup Corner Day Nursery based in Oldham, which has closed partially once since 1 June due to staff self-isolation.

"I am constantly worried and stressed about getting or being in contact with Covid. I have two assistants and nine children (plus wraparound care) a day. If I have to close, I have more than 20 families that won’t be able to go to work, the majority of which are on the exempt list. It's crazy." - Emma Bowskill, an Ofsted-registered childminder based in Nottingham.

"We had to close for a week and turn away the children of four key workers and fourteen other workers." - Geoffrey Brown of Questingmoles Childcare Ltd based in Hayward Health, which has had to close once since 1 June due to staff self-isolation.

"I have several NHS staff on my books and these have all been massively impacted by my inability to work - so while we are not classed as essential workers, the families affected are." - an Ofsted-registered childminder based in Wickford, Essex, who has had to self-isolate twice since 1 June due to being 'pinged' by the NHS Test and Trace App, and chose to remain anonymous.