Nursery workers struggle to get Covid-19 tests leaves settings with staff shortages

Annette Rawstrone
Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Difficulty accessing coronavirus tests is negatively impacting on the childcare sector as early years workers are having to self-isolate because they cannot get tests for themselves or family members.

Early years workers have been unable to get Covid-19 tests, despite being classed by the Government as 'critical workers'
Early years workers have been unable to get Covid-19 tests, despite being classed by the Government as 'critical workers'

A growing number of childcare practitioners across the country are reporting that they are having difficulties accessing tests. This is leaving them unable to work and settings struggling to maintain ratios, the Early Years Alliance has warned.

According to Government guidance, early years workers are classed as ‘critical workers’ and should be given priority access to tests. However, many childcare providers are reporting being unable to access any tests at all.

‘I currently have two members of staff off with suspected Covid symptoms, one of which more than likely has tonsillitis but cannot see her doctor. She has been asked to self-isolate for 10 days unless she can get a test’ said Hannah Wilkes, deputy manager of Poppetts Day Nursery in Shenfield, Essex.

‘They have tried to get a drive-in centre, a walk-in centre and getting the test posted to them, none of which were successful. This is highly important as we need the staff to cover our ratios, and while these staff members are off awaiting a test, I have staff and children possibly at risk too.’

Childminder Claire Attfield, based in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, has been forced to temporarily close as a safety precaution because her teenage child has a cough, sore throat and temperature but has been unable to access a test online after three days of trying.

Two staff members are currently absent from Embsay Children’s Centre in Skipton, North Yorkshire due to Covid-19 issues. Both have been unable to get tested. One tried to be tested in a pop-up centre in a local car park and at a permanent centre in a neighbouring town but was turned away at both places.

‘They will now need to self-isolate for longer and I am struggling to staff the setting due to other staff absences,’ said headteacher Caroline Midgley.

‘Staff are working overtime to provide cover but this is not sustainable. We will need to turn children away in order to maintain ratios at peak times during the day, which we can’t afford to do, should this situation continue.’

All schools and further education suppliers have been given an initial supply of 10 home testing kits to be used for staff and children who ‘may have barriers to accessing testing elsewhere’, with the ability to order further kits from 16 September. But the Department for Education has confirmed to the Alliance that ‘at this stage, there is no further information on home testing kits for early years providers.’ This is despite the fact that childcare providers have been able to open to all children since 1 June.

Jacqui Henley, owner and manager of Butterflies Montessori School in Brentwood, Essex has needed four tests for staff and children but two have been unable to obtain them. The nursery is signed up to the essential worker portal but it has not helped in accessing tests.

‘Major problems’ getting staff tested - with three currently off due to Covid symptoms - at Treasures Nursery in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, led to nursery manager Cathy Walker looking into buying home testing kits but, at a cost of £113 per test, it was prohibitive.

The Alliance is calling on the Government to urgently ensure that as critical workers, early years staff are able to gain priority access to testing, and to provide all childcare settings with home testing kits to align with the approach taken with schools and colleges.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, warned that, with early years settings already being under extreme financial pressure, being forced to turn children away or close because of staff shortages could be the ‘final straw’ for many struggling providers.

‘Early years providers have been on the frontline throughout this crisis, putting themselves at risk in order to continue providing the care and education that families need for little reward and even less recognition,’ he said.

‘The absolute least the Government could do is to ensure that those working in the sector who need a test can access one without delay – and yet, it is clear from the reports that we are receiving that despite being promised priority testing status alongside other key workers, in too many cases, this simply isn’t happening.’

Speaking in the House of Commons today (Tuesday 15 September) secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock said that Covid tests are now having to be prioritised due to a ‘sharp rise’ in people being tested, including those who are ineligible. He said that they will be setting out an updated prioritisation for testing and warned that further restrictions may be possible.

‘The top priority is, and always has been, acute clinical care,’ he said. ‘The next priority is social care, where we’re now sending over 100,000 tests a day because we’ve seen the risks this virus poses in care homes.’

Shadow health and social care secretary Jonathan Ashworth warned that testing for coronavirus needs urgently fixing. 

‘We are at a perilous moment,’ he said. ‘Imperial College estimates the virus is doubling every seven to eight days. We all want to avoid further restrictions or another national lockdown. But when testing breaks down, contact tracing breaks down, and the growth of this virus cannot be tracked.’

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