Nurseries and playgroups are still allowed to open in lockdown - but is it safe?
England is in its third national lockdown since the coronavirus crisis began, after Boris Johnson shut schools to most pupils and imposed the toughest restrictions on the country since March 2020.
In a televised address to the nation on 5 January, the Prime Minister ordered the country to stay indoors other than for limited exceptions, in an attempt to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by surging infections.
Mr Johnson bowed to significant pressure to order primary schools, secondaries and colleges to move to remote teaching for the majority of students, and pinned hopes on the rollout of vaccines to ease the restrictions in mid-February.
But though the restrictions are tough, Early Years settings (including nurseries and childminders) remain open. So why are they open when other education institutions are shutting?
Here is everything you need to know.
What are the new lockdown rules on schools in England?
In England, all primary and secondary schools and colleges will close their doors and move to remote learning, except for the children of key workers or vulnerable children.
But Early Years settings such as nurseries and childminders can remain open, and existing childcare bubbles will be allowed to stay in place.
University students will not be allowed to return to campus and will be expected to study from their current residence.
In-person university teaching will only take place for a small number of critical courses, including medicine, dentistry, teacher training, veterinary science and social work.
Why are Early Years settings still open?
Asked about the science behind why schools have closed but nurseries and Early Years settings remain open, virologist Professor Calum Semple said the decision to keep such institutions open was “not a scientific one”.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “Under these circumstances, every opportunity to remove social mixing and work mixing of human beings is vitally important.
Prof Semple said that a “political decision” on Early Years settings had likely been made “in order to keep the essential staff at work”, but the move to do so should be tempered by “restricting the nursery capacity to those essential workers.
”If we’ve gotten 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,” he added.
“It may be that a political decision has been made here that nurseries are essential. But it’s not a scientific one.”
Are nurseries safe?
The decision to close down education settings is no surprise, following the outbreak of the UK’s ‘new variant’, which has proven to be up to 70% more transmissible than the dominant version of Covid-19 that came before.
So while nurseries remain open and you are able to send your young children to them, is it safe to do so?
Early Years charity and membership organisation Alliance has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over the "appalling" exclusion of Early Years from lockdown discussions.
The Department of Education “must provide a clear and unequivocal scientific basis” for keeping such settings open they say, “at a time when there are such serious concerns about the new strain of Covid-19.”
Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch, said: “If the Government is this concerned about the spread of the virus in primary schools, it must provide clear, scientific evidence for why the Early Years should be treated differently. If it cannot provide this vital reassurance, then it surely has no choice but take the necessary decision to close early years settings.
"Despite the close contact that Early Years staff have every day with young children who do not – and are not expected to – socially distance, there has also apparently been no consideration as to whether childcare practitioners should be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said: “Nurseries and childcare providers are being put into an intolerable position by the Government – being told it is safe to open while schools are being advised to close. This is causing real fear for staff [and] parents.”
When will schools open again?
In his address, the Prime Minister warned that the measures being introduced immediately are expected to last until mid-February.
It is thought that measures are unlikely to be relaxed until around 13 million people aged over 70 or classed as extremely clinically vulnerable have received the vaccine and been given enough time to be protected – about two to three weeks after getting the jab.
But Mr Johnson issued a series of ifs – on the public following the rules and understanding of the virus not dramatically shifting – before the nation can start “cautiously” moving down through tiered restrictions with schools reopening after the February half-term.
For more information on England’s national lockdown, head to the Government’s website
A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, the Yorkshire Evening Post