(Note: This blog from 6 August was updated on 21 September 2020 to include updated government guidance on local lockdowns)
By Melanie Pilcher, Quality and Standards Manager at the Early Years Alliance
Since 1 June, childcare providers have been able to welcome back children of all ages.
A further step forward on 20 July saw the requirement to keep children in small consistent groups, or bubbles lifted. This in turn enabled more children to be cared for so long as the provider was able to minimise mixing within settings.
Of course, there have been many challenges associated with wider opening.
Parents and early years practitioners have understandably been cautious and have needed reassurance that it is safe to return to their early years setting.
Providers have gone to great lengths to instil confidence by demonstrating how they are following government guidance and taking all precautions to keep everyone safe.
The actions that have been put in place to minimise the risk of transferring the infection have become routine in many settings as children, parents and practitioners adapt to a new way of doing things.
Local spikes could happen at any time
For a while it felt like we could be cautiously optimistic that things were starting to settle down as we focused our attention on reassuring parents and practitioners that early years is ‘open for business.’
We have always been warned of the possibility of a ‘second wave’ of infection, but despite this, the first official local lockdown being imposed in Leicester in July this year following a jump in the number of confirmed cases, came as a real blow to businesses in every category.
Early years and childcare providers found themselves having once again to implement restrictions, including only offering prioritised places and sometimes having to re-furlough staff where they were eligible to do so.
Since Leicester there have been several ‘spikes’ in infection rates in areas that could at any time see themselves in local lockdown.
This reminds us that the virus is still a clear and present danger and that the government will impose local restrictions quickly where the evidence shows it to be necessary.
In the worst-case scenario, going back into lockdown is likely to affect the morale of staff who have worked so hard to create a safe environment, and parents who have made the big decision to send their child back but now find they are not eligible for a prioritised place.
For the foreseeable future everyone must continue to implement all precautionary measures detailed in the government guidance on early years closures but must also be prepared to rewind where local circumstances dictate.
Being prepared – increased infection rates in your area
Monitor regional news and local authority website for information about ‘spikes’ in your area. Be alert to suggestions that local lockdown or further restrictions may have to be considered.
Where this is the case there are some actions you can take immediately with the aim of staying open until you are told otherwise:
- Have early discussions with parents to alert them to the possibility that you may be advised to limit places available i.e. for key workers and vulnerable children. Check status of parents and children accordingly.
- If you have the capacity while maintaining your current numbers and staffing levels, reintroduce bubbles where it is practical to do so.
- Remind everyone of hygiene measures and limit play activities and equipment that may increase risk of transmission.
- Take all other enhanced precautions as previously undertaken during national lockdown.
- Promote and encourage test and trace to parents and staff where this is available.
- Communicate with landlord or School (if on school site) to agree measures to keep setting open if local lockdown is likely.
- Communicate with other users in shared premises to negotiate measures required to keep operating service where other users/community groups may have to close.
Local lockdown or local restrictions are announced
If there is a significant increase in infection rates in your area, the government and relevant local authorities will act together to control the spread of the virus.
On 28 August, the DfE published new guidance for early years providers, schools and colleges in the event that new restrictions are put in place.
The guidance states that "in local areas where restrictions have been implemented for certain sectors ... education and childcare will usually remain fully open to all".
The guidance outlines four levels, or 'Tiers', of local lockdown restrictions, ranging from Tier 1 (the most relaxed) to Tier 4 (the most restrictive).
The tier of local lockdown enforced in a particular area will depend on the level of local outbreak.
Under Tiers 1 - 3, early years providers will be able to remain open to all children.
Only under Tier 4 would settings be asked to close to all but key worker children and vulnerable children.
Essentially, this means that when an area is placed into local lockdown, it is unlikely that early years providers will be asked to (partially) close, and this will only happen in limited circumstances, if deemed absolutely necessary.
You can read the guidance in full here.
More information on affected local areas is available on the local lockdown page on Gov.uk where there will be separate and differing guidance for each local area affected.
As an example, here is the guidance for Leicester and here is the guidance for affected areas in Greater Manchester and Lancashire.
From 21 September, informal childcare between households is permitted - even in local areas with restrictions on household mixing. Informal childcare arranged between households must be part of a “consistent” relationship and “one-off” playdates are not permitted.