Someone needs to think about our nurseries. Most of them are closed although they are supposed to be open for the children of key workers. I’ve heard frontline staff complain that even where they are open, they are reluctant to take the children of NHS workers because of the perceived risk of infection – so much for clapping our NHS workers on a Thursday evening. I hope this attitude doesn’t represent the majority of nursery workers. I understand their anxiety but it’s still rather shocking, and suggests an absence of calm and sensible leadership.
Most nurseries these days are private businesses and many will have closed and furloughed their staff. You can see their point: business would be uncertain, staff sickness would be high, contamination with Covid-19 an unknown risk, social distancing with toddlers virtually impossible. Government encouragement and acknowledgement might have made the difference. But as it stands, it is an unintended consequence of the furlough policy that such businesses, with a key role to play at this time, have chosen to close.
The nursery my daughter uses always has a long waiting list and places are booked in the early weeks of pregnancy. It closed as soon as lock-down was announced, but continued to charge parents full price for the privilege of keeping their child’s place. Once the Government announced its furlough policy for employees, and after some bitter complaints from parents whose income had also temporarily dried up, it reduced this fee to 20%. It remains closed and the one or two nurseries that have remained open in the town are only taking the children previously enlisted with them. Both my daughter and her husband are key workers and are having to juggle the childcare between them. Luckily they can both do most of their work from home, unlike health and social care staff. Hard to be doing such stressful work and to be worried that your children are not being adequately cared for at the same time.
Maybe there are examples in some parts of the country of nurseries working co-operatively on this, but the government can’t rely on the private sector to do this, unless it offers the right incentives. Surely, it shouldn’t be beyond someone to sort this out, if not at national level, then through local authorities?
I have always been impressed with Cuba’s record on child health. Despite being a much poorer country, its infant mortality rate was – and still is – lower than the USA’s. Every time there was a crisis and the economic situation took a turn for the worse – such as when the Soviet Union stopped its support in the early 1990s – child health was seen as a top priority: for example, the government provided vitamins and supplements when food itself was scarce. When I visited Cuba in 2002, I came across a peaceful protest march of parents and children in Havana. I was surprised that protests were even allowed in Cuba and even more impressed when I discovered they were protesting because of a plan to increase class sizes from 15 to 18!
It cannot be said that children are being given the same priority in the UK. CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) set up in response to the Child Poverty Act 2010, estimate child poverty has increased by 38% over the last 10 years. Linked to this, Child Benefit has been restricted, Sure Start centres have closed, class sizes in primary school – already double that in Cuba – have increased, and CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) are on their knees. Thankfully Covid-19 seems to spare children, but for some of them I fear the quality of their lives has deteriorated over the last few weeks, their horizons narrowed, literally and metaphorically. Sadly, a sizable minority will be hungry or at increased risk from violent or abusive parents. Schools are being kept open for the most vulnerable as well as children of key workers, but teachers are reporting that worryingly few of those most at risk are attending – a fact that has been relatively under-reported in the media. What is happening to these children? The question fills me with dread. All sorts of people will be trying to minimise the likelihood of tragic scenarios playing out: teachers and social workers most obviously, but also volunteers and worried neighbours.
But as a nation, it’s very clear that we do not keep children in the forefront of our thinking. Has it, for example, crossed the mind of any government minister, that many children will be bewildered, confused and frightened by what’s going on, that most of them won’t be in touch with teachers, and that many of them won’t have parents who can be relied on to empathically communicate the reality of the virus and the reason for the lock-down?
Compare our leaders’ lack of regard in this matter to the intervention by Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway. Inspired by the short three minute press conference that the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiken, held for the children of her country, Solberg had the innovative idea of using television to talk directly to children, holding a dedicated press conference where no adults were allowed. She responded to children’s questions from across the country, respectful of their curiosity, reassuring of their fears, taking time to explain, for example, why it was ok to feel scared.
Where are our children’s advocates at national level? Apparently, our Minister for Children is Vicky Ford, but I’ve not seen or heard her during the pandemic – or before for that matter. She is apparently the fifth person to hold this office in less than three years.
People appointed as Children’s Commissioner have had a tendency to resign in protest over continuing cuts to children’s services over the last few years. Anne Longfield is the current incumbent. She has a website and her team have produced a well judged, age sensitive guide on the coronavirus for children. https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/publication/childrens-guide-to-coronavirus/ The trouble is I had to look this up. Let’s see more of her!
This difficult period is confronting us with many of the patterns of neglect, marginalisation and denial that have inexorably developed in our society over decades. Children are our future. How can we make this time of lockdown a better experience for them? How can we become a country that doesn’t just ‘talk the talk’, but really values our children? We could begin by thinking through government policy from the perspective of its impact on children’s lives. Sorting out the nurseries would be a good start.