FAQs on supporting staff with childcare responsibilities

COVID-19 FAQs

As of the current government guidance we understand that all childcare and education sectors are open as of the 8 March 2021. The following section and guidance we have produced may be out of date, however, we understand that schools and education systems are still being affected by COVID-19 outbreaks in which cases the following guidance will be applicable for your NHS staff.

School provision during the pandemic 

1) Following the Prime Minister's announcement on 22 February, does the return of all school pupils in England mean that childcare issues are no longer an issue for NHS organisations and staff? NEW 23 February

No, unfortunately this does not mean that childcare issues are no longer a concern. Continued flexibility on the part of NHS organisations and employers will be required throughout this next phase of the pandemic. Although the full return to schools from 8 March brings some welcome news, it is anticipated that childcare will continue to be a concern for staff, as was the case prior to the third national lockdown. In particular, working parents are likely to see continued requests made by schools for children to self-isolate where they have come into contact with a positive case of COVID-19. 

In addition, the sustainability of a permanent national return to school is dependent on a number of factors, including the progress of the vaccination programme, infection rate, hospital admissions and new variants. Full information about the easing of lockdown restrictions and the government's roadmap can be found on the GOV.UK website.

2) Will before and after school clubs be able to operate when schools reopen? NEW 23 February

NHS staff have highlighted a particular concern about the lack of availability of before and after school clubs during the pandemic. The Department for Education (DfE) has heard these concerns and its policy teams have taken this into close consideration in the development of its recommendations to government and resulting policy guidelines. This provision is now able to reopen in line with the full return to schools. However, there are still concerns about the impact of the pandemic on the wraparound and out of schools sector and, in some areas, parents may still struggle to access this provision. 

PACEY, the national membership body for registered childminders continues to promote its services to the NHS at this time. In addition, information about local childcare provision is available through the CORAM website.

3) What would a return to local school closures mean for NHS critical worker provision? Updated 23 February

If there is a need for local closures the DfE has confirmed that provision for critical workers and vulnerable children will continue to be a priority, as set out in its contingency framework. In this scenario, the expectation would be that children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker could go to school or college if required. 

4) Who is eligible to access critical worker school places during periods of lockdown? Updated 23 February

GOV.UK guidance sets out a comprehensive list of workers that are critical to the COVID-19 and EU transition response, including those who work in health and social care. Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school or college if required, but parents and carers should keep their children home if they can. It is for the parent or carer to decide whether they can keep the child at home. Parents are encouraged to consider the spirit of the lockdown when making their decision. Only one parent or carer needs to be a critical worker, and they may be working from home and still require their child to attend school.

The DfE has published an article outlining the facts about vulnerable and critical worker children, which sets out everything parents and carer need to know about who can access onsite school provision during lockdown. 

This applied not only in the event of a national lockdown but also in the event of a return to local alert tiers and any resulting localised school closures

5) What do staff do if their child's school refuses to provide a place? 

If a school has not provided a child with full critical worker provision where this has been requested, or is only offering a limited number of days, parents and carers can seek support to address this.

Options include seeking the support of the employing organisation and/or staff side representative. If it proves necessary, the school may ask for simple evidence that the parent or carer in question is a critical worker, such as their work ID badge, pay slip or letter of confirmation. Where a school is not following DfE guidelines and staff are experiencing difficulty in accessing provision, issues can be raised in the first instance through their local authority, or nationally with the DfE via the COVID-19 childcare workstream within the people directorate at NHS England and NHS Improvement (DfE escalations are shared for addressing with regional school commissioners).

Please contact naiomi.edwards@nhs.net or chloe.allwinter@nhs.net in relation to national escalations. 

Further FAQs

1) Some NHS staff have been unable to prove critical worker status. What support is available?

A template letter is available from NHS England and NHS Improvement, which can be used to support staff in confirming their critical worker status with education establishments.

2) What do we pay our staff whose children are unable to attend school, nursery or childcare as a result of closures, or because they have been sent home to self-isolate, or have COVID-19 symptoms? - New 4 Feb

Whether a member of staff is entitled to receive COVID-19 special leave depends on whether there is a government requirement for the employee to self-isolate.

For a full answer and explanation to this question please visit our Pay FAQs.

3) How can staff be supported with the challenges of working from home?
NHS organisations should encourage line managers to discuss the caring or childcare responsibilities of employees and adapt the duties and/or working hours of home workers to accommodate these. You can read further information on supporting staff at home and work in our COVID-19 guidance.

4) Our staff are finding that some childcare services are still closed rather than reopening with safety arrangements in place. How can this be mitigated?
We understand that a number of childcare providers may be unable to re-open at this time, or open more widely. Parents can contact their local authority (LA) if their usual childcare provider is not open.

We also understand that some LAs have been scoping where there are gaps in the provision of childcare, and are looking to work with providers to scale up provision where possible. NHS organisations may wish to contact LAs with any concerns around provision to support this.

Staff can access their local Family Information Service, which is regarded as a first point of contact for updated information on childcare provision, using the childcare finder on the Coram Family and Childcare website

5) The financial burden for staff at the moment around childcare is concerning. How can staff be supported?
Employers may wish to flag tax-free childcare options for staff who are parents of children 11 or under. More detail about key information on tax-free childcare for employers can be found in our  guidance. Many organisations also offer salary sacrifice schemes and should ensure these are promoted to staff during this time.

Staff can also be signposted to the Childcare Choices website, where they can check if they are eligible for free childcare.

You can find tips in our financial wellbeing section, as well as  guidance from NHS England and NHS Improvement on financial wellbeing.

6) Does the childcare exemption still apply? - Updated 6 January 

Yes, the childcare exemption, announced on 21 September, still applies. It covers formal and informal arrangements for children under 14 and for vulnerable children, where this is necessary for caring purposes. It allows family members, eg grandparents who routinely provide informal childcare, to continue to do so. This exemption acknowledges that the restriction of inter-household mixing in areas of local intervention could cause hardship for families, and may affect the ability of critical workers, such as NHS front line staff, to do their job.

Irrespective of the childcare exemption, flexibility in supporting staff who may struggle currently to balance childcare is still a requirement. Staff who rely on care in informal settings such as through partners, relatives or friends are still likely to be affected by government policies on self-isolation and social distancing, as well as health concerns for those most vulnerable. Further guidance is available on the Gov.uk website

7) What other childcare support is accessible during the period of national lockdown?

On 2 December, the government expanded eligibility of support bubbles, to mitigate the impact of the restrictions on parents of children aged under 1 (or under 5, but with a disability that necessitates continuous care) and for those households where a single adult cares for someone with a serious disability. Staff who are eligible to form a childcare bubble and eligible to form a support bubble can form one of each with different households. 

There are several ways parents and carers can continue to access childcare, in addition to childcare and support bubbles:

  • Early years settings (including nurseries and childminders) remain open.
  • Vulnerable children of critical workers can continue to use registered childcare, childminders and other childcare activities (including wraparound care).
  • Nannies will be able to continue to provide services, including in the home. 

8) What support is available for NHS working parents/carers and their families? - updated 15 February 

This year has been extraordinarily difficult for people working across the NHS and, for parents and carers with childcare responsibilities, finding a balance between work and family life can be hard to achieve. NHS England and NHS Improvement produced a guide focused around balancing home working and home schooling at the start of the pandemic which links to useful resources on a variety of wellbeing topics. The following organisations can all support NHS staff and their families: 

  • Cityparents programme currently offers free of charge access to everyone who works in the NHS, providing expertise and support to help balance work with family life, including podcasts, as well as support groups and webinars.
  • Place2Be has published a free programme to support the mental health and relationship building of keyworkers and their children. The programme includes a series of webinars and an arts and crafts resource pack for parents/carers and children to use together.
  • PACEY: The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years provide practical and impartial support and information for families and carers and those advising them. They are welcoming all queries and offering support for keyworkers and their families. 
  • Every mind matters site: expert advice and practical tips to help you look after your own mental health and wellbeing and that of children and young people.
  • DHSC has published information and support to help parents and carers support their children's remote education during COVID-19
  • Our Providing flexibility for employers page has good practice examples from NHS trusts 

9) Has the self-isolation period reduced from 14 days to 10 days? - added 18 December

Yes, after reviewing evidence the Department for Health and Social Care has reduced the self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 days. This was set out in the UK Chief Medical Officers' statement on the self-isolation period from 11 December. Any new cases identified for self-isolation will be advised to self-isolate for 10 days.

The Department for Education has updated guidance to reflect this change in educational and childcare settings. 

10) Are staff with childcare responsibilities eligible for regular COVID-19 tests? Updated 17 March

As schools reopen, the government has made twice weekly lateral flow tests available for the following people:

  • secondary school pupils
  • primary and secondary school staff
  • households, childcare and support bubbles of primary and secondary-age pupils
  • households, childcare and support bubbles of primary and secondary staff.

Visit GOV.UK for information on how to access the tests. Please note, positive tests taken at schools and colleges in a supervised environment require a ten day isolation period and do not require a follow up PCR test. A positive test taken at home will require a follow up PCR test to confirm that the pupil has COVID-19. If the PCR test is negative, the child can go back to school and the household will not need to self-isolate. 

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