Video report by ITV News Correspondent Stacey Foster
Tens of thousands of people are calling on the government to protect early years staff and are asking why nurseries are expected to open when schools will close.
The third national lockdown for England came into force today. But while Boris Johnson announced on Monday that schools must move most students to remote learning, he said everyone will still be able to access early years settings.
The Prime Minister is facing calls to shut nurseries as more than 40,000 people have signed a parliament.uk petition to protect early years staff.
Ailsa Monk, owner and headteacher of Cotswold Montessori Schools, revealed how a nursery manager tested positive for Covid-19, just a day after Mr Johnson’s announcement and after leading an inset day with staff.
She had to close one of her two centres as all staff had to self-isolate. Ms Monk decided to close her second centre for at least another week as “anxiety levels of staff were through the roof”.
Ms Monk, who is nearly 50, said there are staff members older than her, with underlying medical conditions or living with vulnerable family members.
She told ITV News: “I feel I was given a hospital pass on Monday night. Why is it not safe for primary schools to go back and why is it safe for early years to go back? If we had more time, we would have got our heads around it. We do not want to be an after thought.”
She added: “For primary schools, there was talk about lateral flow tests and vaccines but there was no mention for us.
“I think it is vital for us to be open. I sent an email out to parents on Sunday and an overwhelming number said ‘please open’, because we are needed and give them respite.”
Liam Thompson, deputy manager of a nursery in Canary Wharf, expressed anger that his workers are being “completely forgotten about”.
Mr Thompson has created a separate change.org petition which has more than 5,500 signatures.
He said: “I have seen first hand the dangers (of Covid-19) in early years.
“We had a case just before Christmas. It passed from a child to staff members. I was one of the people who had the virus. I was in bed over Christmas.”
He continued: “The Government are happy we can stay open. But there are so many implications and staying open without support is hard.
“Nursery workers are not even considered priority. Until we get vaccines, I do not think we should be open.”
Another nursery manager Becca Clements, of Little Learners nursery in Elm Park, east London, said: “I have seen nothing that suggests the spread in younger children is very low and my staff team are not under five.
“We cannot social distance in this environment. The fact that we are not on the vaccine list is alarming. Teachers are higher up the list than us.”
She continued: “We feel like an after thought and lots of early years teams feel under valued. I am happy to keep working. We have had zero cases in our nursery but it is only a matter of time before we have a case and we have to shut. Is there financial support?”
Professor Calum Semple, who is in the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has suggested the decision to keep nurseries open may be a political one rather than a scientific one.
He told BBC Breakfast: “So if a political decision has been made here to keep nurseries open in order to keep the essential staff at work, then that could be tempered by restricting the nursery capacity to those essential workers.
“But if we’ve got to the point of closing the universities, secondary schools and primary schools on the grounds of public health, then I would be looking to close all other non-essential activities.
“And it may be that a political decision has been made here that nurseries are essential. But it’s not a scientific one.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said that before the announcement many early years practitioners were already worried about continuing to work.
He added: “It is unacceptable that yet another government announcement has been made without reference to any scientific evidence explaining how those working in the early years are expected to be able to keep themselves and their loved ones safe at a time when those in schools are being told that it is simply too dangerous to go to work.”
All primary and secondary schools and colleges have moved to remote learning, except for the children of keyworkers or vulnerable children.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Early years settings remain low-risk environments for children and staff and there is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children.
“Keeping nurseries and childminders open will support parents and deliver the crucial care and education for our youngest children.
“We are funding nurseries as usual and all children are able to attend their early years setting in all parts of England.
“Where nurseries do see a drop in income from either parent-paid fees or income from DfE, they are able to use the furlough scheme.
“Working parents on coronavirus support schemes will still remain eligible for childcare support even if their income levels fall below the minimum requirement.”
The DfE said it was closing schools not because they are unsafe but because additional measures are needed to contain the spread of the virus.
It added that children aged five and under have the lowest rates of coronavirus of all groups. Evidence suggests pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are not playing a driving role in transmission, it added.
According to the department, early evidence from Sage showed that early years provision had a smaller relative impact on transmission rate than primary schools, which in turn had a smaller impact than secondary schools.
Additionally, Public Health England advice remains that the risk of transmission and infection is low if early years settings follow the system of controls, which reduce risks and create inherently safer environments.