Keeping nurseries open while shutting schools and universities may have been a “political decision”, a SAGE expert has said.
Virologist Professor Calum Semple said it was “vitally important” to close all non-essential activities as infection rates soar – and claimed allowing nurseries to operate had not been a scientific decision.
Nursery leaders warned of fear and confusion over how safe the settings were and said parents needed reassurance from Government.
It comes as Boris Johnson ordered schools and colleges in England to close from Tuesday except for vulnerable children and key workers’ kids as part of the third national lockdown.
Pupils will move to remote education until mid-February when the lockdown rules are due to be reviewed.
But early years settings, such as nurseries and child minders, will still be allowed to operate, and existing childcare bubbles can continue.
Prof Semple suggested restricting nursery capacity to the children of key workers.
He told BBC Breakfast: “So if a political decision has been made here to keep nurseries open in order to keep the essential staff at work, then that could be tempered by restricting the nursery capacity to those essential workers.
“But if we’ve got 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.
“And it may be that a political decision has been made here that nurseries are essential. But it’s not a scientific one.”
Union leaders called for nurseries to be shut except to the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters.
Jon Richards, UNISON head of education, said: “Keeping nurseries and other pre-schools open puts staff and communities at risk.
“Social distancing is impossible with young children and the government has yet to publish the scientific evidence to justify nurseries being treated differently to schools.
“The decision seems to have been taken with little regard to the health and safety of employees.
“Ministers must treat nurseries the same as schools, as in the first lockdown. Staff must be a priority for vaccinations and mass testing.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said parents, nurseries and staff were worried.
She said: “Nurseries want to keep open so they can continue to support children and give them a safe and nurturing place during this lockdown.
“However, the Government are asking a lot of childcare providers and their staff and have to recognise this.
“There is a lot of fear and confusion about how safe nurseries are.
“Parents and staff need reassurance from the Government about the evidence behind the decision to keep nurseries open to all.”
She said early years staff needed to be prioritised for testing now schools are closed and urged ministers to consider prioritising staff for the vaccine .
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said many early years practitioners had already expressed alarm about continuing to work before the announcement.
He added: “It is unacceptable that yet another government announcement has been made without reference to any scientific evidence explaining how those working in the early years are expected to be able to keep themselves and their loved ones safe at a time when those in schools are being told that it is simply too dangerous to go to work.”