Covid-19 Has Exposed Britain’s Childcare Crisis

Almost half of the women workers who have lost their jobs during Covid-19 cite lack of childcare as a factor. It's time to recognise childcare as a public good – and make it available to everyone.

Unsurprisingly, as the Covid-19 crisis wears on, the government and its chorus of loyal MPs are working overtime to make sure blame is shifted in as many different places as possible. Whether it is Public Health England, scientists, teachers, holidaymakers or protestors — one thing is for sure; they do not want the finger pointed at them.

This government is exceptionally good at shifting the blame and, sadly, it seems to work. It only takes a brief conversation with residents in my role as a local councillor to hear the anger directed at anyone and everyone — ‘groups of teenagers’, ‘shoppers who are too close’ or, this week and much to my dismay, ‘mothers who should take their holidays to look after their children.’

This pandemic has been difficult for many families. The government offered no solution for childcare — something that was already a serious problem before the crisis. Like many others during lockdown, my female friends and I have supported each other in juggling work and trying to teach our offspring.

We vented about our little cherubs, worried about the mounting food bills and consoled each other regarding the never-ending piles of washing. We have supported each other on more than one occasion when we found ourselves in tears feeling guilty and inadequate, with concerns about failing our children and worries about our household income.

In May, a study from the London School of Economics found that women were more likely to deal with homeschooling, childcare and chores during the crisis, an extension of the unpaid work that many spent hours doing in the home before this pandemic. Another recent survey showed that a lack of childcare was a factor in almost half of the layoffs impacting women workers since Covid-19 hit.

We simply cannot emerge from this pandemic with no change to childcare. It’s time to make the case for transforming the sector — and the Left as well as trade unions must lead the way.

Successive governments have refused to treat the care of our children as the social necessity it is, instead allowing it to become a for-profit business. This has resulted in many families being unable to afford childcare, but also to problems in the system itself — with informal working conditions, like those associated with au pairs, leading to exploitation in many cases.

For regularised childcare workers and small providers, the coronavirus pandemic has meant a huge economic crisis. Many are going out of business already, with more likely to follow. A recent survey by the Childcare online platform found that one in six providers were likely to have closed permanently because of Covid-19 while one in three were unsure if they could reopen.

Already, the system was unaffordable. Many parents could not cope with the skyrocketing costs and it was not unusual for wage packets — usually women’s — to be almost entirely swallowed up by the cost of a childminder or nursery, leaving many at a loss as to whether to stick with their career or give it up altogether.

Childcare is mistakenly regarded as a private matter for individuals rather than a public good and it is crucial that we tackle this misconception. Quality childcare and early childhood education should be considered a public service available to all and, ideally, it should be free at the point of use. Otherwise it will be those who can least afford it — women, children and the poor — who pay the cost of a dysfunctional system.

We need clear demands of the government. At the top of the list must be recognition for the fact that people who have been advised to shield and those without enough childcare may need to work from home for the foreseeable future. Families in these positions must not be penalised — or demonised. And they most certainly should not be shoved towards unpaid leave, forced to use up annual leave or have to furlough.

Instead, we should be penalising bosses that force workers — usually women — who have childcare responsibilities to take redundancy, or cuts in hours or pay. According to the campaign Pregnant Then Screwed, 52 percent of women have faced negativity from their employer during this crisis because they lacked access to childcare. And even among key workers, who this government claims it is keen to celebrate, 67 percent say they have been forced to reduce their hours in the same circumstances.

The Early Years Alliance is absolutely correct in calling on the government to commit to an urgent financial support package to ensure that childcare providers in England can toremain viable throughout coronavirus and beyond. Their report — ‘The Forgotten Sector’ — recommends a reversal of the u-turn on the Job Retention Scheme, ongoing support with the costs of cleaning and PPE and greater access to business support grants.

But, unfortunately, early years was cut out of the government’s Covid-19 “catch-up” funding, and, unlike schools, childcare providers can’t even claim back the costs for coronavirus safety measures such as additional cleaning and staffing. As always, critics will say that there’s not enough money — but some of the country’s wealthiest people have added £25 billion to their fortunes over the course of this pandemic.

This crisis has shown that the state has a major role to play in the economy. The most rational way of providing essential social goods — like childcare — is not through the market or on a for-profit basis, but through public services. If that means taxing the wealthy, closing loopholes, or scrapping massive corporate giveaways, so be it.

Other countries have managed it. In Finland, there is a universal daycare system guaranteeing care for all children under seven free of charge in most cases. In France, écoles maternelles provide free care for children from two to six years old. In Denmark, local authorities pay three-quarters of childcare costs while in Holland employers and the government cover one-third.

We need carefully planned provision based on the needs of local communities and run in the best interests of children and parents. Under capitalism, we have childcare that exists only to keep the economy ticking over and to make profits for a tiny few.

This must now change — with education, health and wellbeing becoming the focus and a system of childcare accessible to all. We must ensure that women have equal access to employment. We must put care before profit. Working people can only absorb capitalism’s shocks for so long.