Coronavirus: Survey reveals 'serious concerns' among early years workers about their safety

Catherine Gaunt
Friday, January 22, 2021

Early years workers are experiencing ‘high’ levels of cases of Covid-19, with around half of them worried about their safety working in nurseries, pre-schools and as childminders, according to new research.

Nurseries have stayed open for all children during the third lockdown PHOTO Adobe Stock
Nurseries have stayed open for all children during the third lockdown PHOTO Adobe Stock

The findings come from an online survey of the early years workforce carried out jointly by the Early Years Alliance and independent sector analysts Ceeda.

They highlight that around one in 10 staff working in early years settings have tested positive for Covid since 1 December.

The Government has asked nurseries, pre-schools and childminders to stay open to all children during the current national lockdown, while schools are closed, except to key worker and vulnerable children.

The Ceeda analysis of the survey findings shows that early years staff are much more likely than children to test positive for Covid, which could lead to thousands of providers closing in the coming weeks because of staff shortages.

The survey highlights that while early years settings remain low-risk environments for young children, the Government must do much more to ensure that same is true for those working in the sector.

The online survey, which was conducted jointly by the Alliance and independent sector analysts Ceeda between Friday 15 January and Tuesday 19 January, received 3,555 responses from those working in the early years and childcare sector.

Data on positive test results is derived from survey responses from 2,675 nurseries and pre-schools and 673 childminders.

Based on the findings, Ceeda estimates that around 31,000 staff working in nurseries and pre-schools and almost 3,000 childminders have tested positive for Covid-19 since 1 December 2020. In comparison, the survey suggests that, on average, less than one child per early years setting has tested positive during the same time period. 

Around two-thirds (63 per cent) of nursery and pre-school respondents also said there was ‘a moderate to high risk’ that their whole setting may need to temporarily close in coming weeks due to staff shortages brought about by Covid-19.

The Alliance said the findings are ‘shocking’ and is calling on the Government to take urgent action to ensure the safety of the early years workforce in England during national lockdown.

Key findings

  • Nearly 1 in 10 (9 per cent) of nursery and pre-school staff and one in 12 (8 per cent) childminders have tested positive for Covid-19 since 1 December 2020
  • Around half of early years practitioners (48 per cent of nursery and pre-school staff and 54 per cent of childminders) say they don’t feel safe in their current early years working environment. 

Commenting on the survey, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said, ‘These shocking findings should, without a doubt, be cause for serious concern. While we know that early years settings are low-risk environments for children, it seems that no one has been asking whether or not the same is true for those working in the sector.

‘With Covid rates among early years practitioners so high, it is no wonder that so many in the sector don’t currently feel safe going into work every day. We know that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have worked incredibly hard to ensure that they offer a safe environment for those children still accessing care and education – but someone needs to be doing the same for them, and so far, the Government has failed to do so.’

The Government does not currently publish data on the number of Covid-19 cases among early years staff.

While Ofsted publishes a list of the number of settings that have reported incidences of Covid-19, it does not include the number of individual cases, or provide a breakdown showing how many staff and/ or children are affected.

This means that if there was an outbreak in a setting that was reported to Ofsted in one report, it would only count as one in the statistics, even if there were multiple cases.

However, the latest weekly DfE figures on education and early years attendance do include, for the first time, the number of confirmed cases among teachers in primary and secondary schools and support staff.

Analysis by the National Education Union of these figures has found that cases among teachers are nearly double that of the general population, and three times higher among support staff.

'No protection'

Lisa Hovelmeier of Parkfield Montessori Pre-school in Christchurch, Dorset, said the Government had ‘completely disregarded the effect of this pandemic on the early years.

‘We have been instructed to stay open to essentially provide childcare but have been given no protection to carry out this service with an age group that has no idea of social distancing.

‘We have had children in the setting away because they have either contracted Covid themselves or because their parents have tested positive. ‘This directly puts us at risk. They say the children are not affected by this but what about us as the teachers? We are susceptible, and so are our families that we go home to each day. Testing and vaccination would go a long way in helping this.’ 

Financially, she added that the nursery was ‘under strain’ with numbers down a third on last year.

Dr Amelia Massoura of Stepping Stones Pre-School in Sittingbourne, Kent, said, out of six members of staff, four have contracted Covid, but that fortunately, all have recovered well. 

‘We are seeing very low numbers of children attending as parents are understandably concerned about extremely high levels of transmission and are keeping their children at home. This makes sense to us as Government guidance says to stay at home in a national lockdown situation: the DfE are sending directly conflicting messages to parents. 

‘We feel that there is a lack of evidence to suggest that children do not spread the virus and that practitioners are being put in a very vulnerable situation.  It is also very disheartening to be treated, again, as the poor relations in education.’

Amanda Webb of Bewbush Community Nursery CIC in Crawley, said she felt that while the data showed that under-fives were not contracting the virus as much as other age groups, it could be because parents were not getting their children tested.

‘We are receiving more and more notifications of parents testing positive and therefore keeping their children at home with them and if they are showing signs of being unwell, not getting them tested but assuming they have the virus.  

‘We just want to be valued and kept safe.’


The Alliance/ Ceeda survey also found strong support across the early years workforce for priority access to vaccinations.

Around 9 in 10 early years practitioners (94 per cent of nursery and pre-school staff and 87 per cent of childminders) believe that the early years workforce should be prioritised in the second phase of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. 

The Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation is currently considering whether to include occupations with a higher risk of exposure to the virus in the next phase of Covid vaccinations. 

However, while education secretary Gavin Williamson has publicly stated that he will fight ‘tooth and nail’ to ensure that school staff and school support staff get priority access to vaccinations, he has yet to make the same commitment on behalf of the early years sector, despite the fact that early years is the only part of the education sector that the Government has asked to remain open to all children and families.

The survey also found that 65 per cent of both nursery and pre-school staff and childminders would prefer to be included in the DfE’s mass lateral flow testing programme, which has been made available to maintained nurseries, schools and colleges and involves testing kits being sent directly to education settings. 

Private and voluntary nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are required to travel to community testing centres to access lateral flow testing – with local authorities ‘encouraged’ to give them ‘priority’ access – despite the fact that many of these centres are only open during working hours.

Mr Leitch added, ‘It is clear from these findings that the Government must, as a matter of absolute urgency, roll out regular lateral flow testing directly to all early years providers, and ensure that the early years workforce is given priority access to vaccinations in Phase 2 of the roll-out. Anything less would be reckless and irresponsible – it is simply not acceptable to ask the sector to work during the most worrying period of the pandemic to date, and not provide the practical support they need to be able to do so safely.’

Financial impact

Respondents to the survey also raised serious concerns about the financial impact of Covid-19 on their long-term sustainability. It found that:

  • Early years occupancy levels are currently 58 per cent in nursery and pre-schools compared to 86 per cent in January 2020, and 54 per cent in childminding settings compared to 92 per cent in January 2020.
  • 51 per cent of nurseries and pre-schools and 35 per cent of childminders expect to be operating at a loss at the end of the spring term based on current levels of Government support. 

During the autumn term, the DfE funded the early years sector based on pre-Covid levels of child attendance

However, during the spring term, the Government is basing funding on the number of children currently registered at early years settings. This is despite the fact that many providers have seen a huge fall in new registrations over recent months as a result of the Government’s ‘Stay at Home’ public health messaging.

Mr Leitch added, ‘Equally vital is the need for Government to provide greater financial support to ensure that early years providers are able to remain viable during this difficult period. Providing funding at pre-pandemic levels is a critical part of this – if the Government was willing to do this during the autumn term, then there is absolutely no justification for not continuing this support now when the take-up of childcare places is even lower.

‘Support for providers facing a substantial loss of private income is just as important and we urge the government to make sure that these settings are not forgotten when looking at the urgent need for financial sector support.

‘Early years providers are the only part of the education sector that the government has asked to remain open to all families. It is surely not too much to ask for the protection - both practical and financial - needed to ensure that we can continue to do so?’

Responding to the survey, the DfE said that early years settings remain low risk environments for children and staff, and that current evidence suggests that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.

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.

The DfE said there was no evidence to date that the early years sector has contributed to a significant rise in virus cases within the community.

Early modelling evidence from SAGE showed that early years provision had a smaller relative impact on transmission rate when modelled with both primary schools and secondary schools.

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Keeping nurseries and childminders open will support parents and deliver the crucial care and education for our youngest children. Current evidence suggests that pre-school children (0<5 years) are less susceptible to infection and are unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.

'We encourage local authorities to prioritise appropriate testing for early years staff through their Community Testing programmes as they are being established.'

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2024. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved