Midcounties CEO urges early Covid-19 vaccination for childcare workers

Phil Ponsonby – whose society runs Co-op Childcare – also called for more financial help for the sector from the government

The chief executive of Co-op Childcare, which runs 45 nurseries across the country, has written to the vaccinations minister Nadhim Zahawi and nurseries minister Vicky Ford to urge the government to prioritise Covid vaccinations for nursery workers and make lateral flow testing kits available to pre-school education providers.

Phil Ponsonby, CEO of Midcounties Co-operative, says that the government hasn’t provided any evidence in support of Mr Zahawi’s claim that nursery schools present “very little risk” of transmission and is ignoring calls from the sector for more support.

Mr Ponsonby said: “The government appears to be ignoring the vital role that pre-school education settings are playing in looking after young children, especially those whose parents are key workers on the front line of caring for people affected by Covid.

“As a co-operative organisation representing the interests of 700,000 members, we are calling on the government to do three things. To prioritise vaccinations for nursery workers, re-direct to the many thousands of lateral flow testing kits that were shipped to schools that are now closed to pre-school nurseries and provide financial support to the sector.

“The financial viability of many nurseries, especially small independently owned and run providers, is being tested to the extreme given the on-costs that they are bearing to run Covid-secure sites. 

“As a large and diversified co-operative, Midcounties is fortunate to be able to subsidise many of these costs but this isn’t the case for many others. The government needs to take action now by vaccinating childcare workers and provide additional support for the sector before nurseries have no other option but to close.”

In his letter to Mr Zahawi, he wrote: “With indications that the new variant of the virus may lead to increased transmission among children, it is crucial that our nursery and early years workers are protected and that we help prevent the spread of the virus.

“The government should also consider redirecting existing lateral flow tests that will no longer be used in schools to nurseries where these tests can be utilised immediately and where the challenges in social-distancing young children makes testing of even greater importance. It is also essential that the sector is given greater financial support to manage the impact of the pandemic and prevent many nurseries from being forced to close.

“Co-op Childcare operates 45 nurseries across the country, many of which are on NHS sites and largely support the children of front-line workers. We employ 1,300 colleagues and look after 4,500 pre-school children. During the pandemic the cost of operating our business safely has increased significantly, yet the sector is not receiving targeted government support.”

He warned: “When considering the financial impact of PPE and cleaning costs, lower occupancy levels, reduced opening hours, introducing lateral flow testing and staff sickness related to Covid-19, we estimate that the cost of ensuring that our children, colleagues and parents remain safe during this period could be more than £350,000 per month.

“This means that the total cost for the sector could exceed £23.5 million per month – a burden that we know will be unsustainable for many in the sector, particularly in light of the decision to cut funding to nurseries to headcount only at a time when occupancy levels are significantly reduced.

“In November, the Early Years Alliance estimated that 1 in 4 nurseries and childminders could close in the next six months as a result of these funding changes.”

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