By Marie Todd, the SNP Minister for Children and Young People
I am grateful for the Parliament’s time in making this statement today. Saturday was Mandela day, and I was reminded of his famous quote: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
I am proud that, in Scotland, we are prioritising our children’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of those who work most closely with them.
I reiterate the First Minister’s message from her daily press briefings: the safety of the people in Scotland is our first priority. As Minister for Children and Young People, it is my responsibility to ensure that all children and their families, and all those who work with children and families, are, above anything else, kept safe. I feel that responsibility keenly as I look at my own community and my own family.
I say “thank you” to all the children and families for everything that you have done during this crisis. I also give specific thanks to the childcare workforce, many of whom have worked throughout the emergency response period. Thank you—there is no job more important than ensuring that our children are safe, loved and nurtured.
From 3 June, when childminders and outdoor settings were able to open, to last Wednesday, 15 July, when all registered childcare services were able to reopen, formal childcare options have been opening up across Scotland.
Care Inspectorate records show that 942 childcare services and 2,110 childminders were open yesterday, and thousands of families are now able to access formal childcare for the first time since lockdown.
That is fantastic news for many people across the country, but I know that this will also be an anxious time for some. The evidence tells us that our youngest children, in particular, are much less likely to catch Covid and become ill, and there is very limited evidence that children transmit the virus. That fact underpins our decisions to relax restrictions for children and young people. However, we must be ever mindful that the risks remain—the virus is here, and we have no vaccine. There is a fine line between effective suppression and community transmission.
It is therefore essential for our precious childcare workforce, in particular, that public health measures are front and centre while we reopen services. The message remains largely the same as the guidance that we published on 15 June: measures should be taken to enhance hand hygiene and cleaning practice; limit children’s interactions; maximise the use of outdoor spaces; ensure physical distance between adults in the childcare setting, including parents at drop-off and pick-up times; and actively engage with test and protect. Those measures will ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff, children, families and the wider community.
On 30 July, working closely with the childcare sector, we will publish a suite of guidance for the sector that will come into effect in August. Alongside that guidance, we will publish the scientific evidence and public health advice that has helped to inform our decisions. That updated advice indicates that we can remove the need for consistent bubbles of up to eight children and ease the current restrictions on blended care. I know that that will be welcome news for the sector and for members in the Parliament.
However, that will not be a return to normal childcare arrangements, and we will all have to think very carefully about how we manage children’s interactions. We are all still living through a global pandemic, and evidence of a resurgence in the virus around the world and closer to home underlines how fragile our progress to date has been. The virus must therefore continue to be suppressed.
To be clear, until new guidance is published and the dates are confirmed, the current guidance remains in place. While no one wants to keep any of the current measures in place for any longer than is necessary, I underline to providers that those measures do not stop them welcoming back their children with open arms and a warm hug.
We know—and the evidence shows—that keeping a high-quality experience at the centre of childcare is what makes the difference for children and what creates such a rewarding profession. Now more than ever, that golden thread of quality is just as important, although perhaps it now needs to have a core of steel. Quality relationships, quality interactions and quality practice are woven through our children’s experiences in childcare in Scotland, and quality remains our focus.
We know that childcare providers have been really worried about their on-going sustainability and being able to keep going for the children they care for, their families and their staff. The past few months have shown us what a vital role the childcare sector plays in Scotland’s overall economic recovery as well as in enabling us to achieve our ambition of improving outcomes for children.
Together, national and local government and sector representatives have been looking carefully at measures to support the childcare sector during this challenging time. We are also pressing the United Kingdom Government for more action at a UK level. On Tuesday this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture [Fiona Hyslop] and I wrote jointly to our counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education to emphasise the childcare sector’s importance to economic recovery. In particular, we urged them to influence the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider tax-free childcare to support parents.
We recognise that childcare is a varied sector that includes a large number of small businesses, social enterprises, third sector organisations and self-employed workers. We depend on that vibrant variety to give children and families what they need, so we must support all parts of the system.
On 16 July, the Deputy First Minister announced £11.2 million for a transitional support fund for private and third sector childcare providers, to help them to address the impact of the pandemic response. Providers will be able to find out more about that fund, which will be for all private and third sector childcare providers, not just those that deliver funded early learning and childcare, by the end of July. We have also worked in partnership with the Scottish Childminding Association to establish a workforce support fund to help childminders who face short-term financial difficulties. That fund opened for applications on 16 July.
The Scottish and UK Governments introduced a range of measures to support businesses through the closure period, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and the bounce back loan scheme. The Scottish Government and local authorities guaranteed that payments for the statutory early learning and childcare entitlement would continue for the duration of closures, thereby ensuring that millions of pounds continued to be paid to providers.
The Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in. Covid-19 will not stop that. In 2014, we made a commitment to deliver the most ambitious childcare offer anywhere in the UK, and, in March this year, Audit Scotland said that we were on track to deliver that.
When the scale of the national emergency became clear, we took the extremely difficult decision to take away the legal duty on local authorities to deliver the ELC expansion from this August. The Parliament approved that step on 1 April. Local authorities have had to focus on managing their local response to Covid-19, and I am grateful for their incredible efforts, along with those of their partners in the private and third sectors.
We are determined to return to our commitment to the expansion of childcare for all children, and we will work with local government and providers to deliver on that as quickly as possible.
We are confident that the careful reopening of childcare that we are setting out ensures that all children, as well as the adults working with them, will be safe and will feel safe, allowing them to make the most of their time together.
Our public health measures are key to keeping children and staff safe and healthy, while the experiences that children have ensure that their development flourishes, and all those who work in the sector can fully embrace the work that they love so much.
I was so reassured to hear this in a wonderful video from the Lullaby Lane nursery in Bearsden, where the message was clear:
“Things may be a little different when you return, but the fun and love will remain.”