Omicron surge sparks concerns over children’s workforce shortage

Fiona Simpson
Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Rising cases of the omicron variant of Covid-19 across the UK has increased fears of staffing shortages in education, early years and children’s social care.

Staff shortages are caused by isolation due to testing positive for Covid-19. Picture: Adobe Stock
Staff shortages are caused by isolation due to testing positive for Covid-19. Picture: Adobe Stock

Some 218,724 cases of the virus were recorded yesterday (January 4) as schools and nurseries returned after the Christmas break.

Early years

June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), warned that the organisation which runs 39 nurseries and pre-schools across the capital, was “nearly 100 staff short” due to the virus. 

Speaking to CYP Now, O’Sullivan said that the number of LEYF staff off work due to isolation is equal to around 10 per cent of the workforce and that she predicts “we will be in this position for the rest of January”.

She called for measures to be put in place to avoid the relaxation of staffing ratios, including a “clear line” on mandatory vaccines for early years staff and a temporary relaxation on the qualification level of staff being recruited to cover sickness.

Children returning to nursery after time off, particularly during the pandemic, are more likely to “come back with more anxieties, behavioural issues and language issues,” O’Sullivan warned adding, “putting more children into the space with fewer staff, no matter how qualified they are, would go against care and education, but having a little more flexibility around unqualified staff would balance that out,” she said.

Early Years leaders have urged the government to “properly support” the sector amid increased levels of staff sickness.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, raised concerns over the exclusion of providers from the Department for Education’s Covid workforce fund which allows schools increased grants to cover staffing shortages due to the virus. 

He said: “Early education settings, who are also forced to pay over the odds for short term cover or to close, receive no help with staffing at all.

“If we are to come out of this pandemic, and indeed this winter wave, with our fantastic early years sector still intact, providers must be properly supported – financially and practically, and as both businesses and essential education settings – to ensure they can continue to deliver the early education and care that children need and families rely on.” 

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) is calling for the temporary pause of Ofsted inspections for providers introduced before Christmas to be extended during January in a bid to reduce pressure on settings.

NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku said: “Inspection activity is vital where there are safeguarding concerns, but it is unfair for nurseries to undergo a routine inspection under the current stresses and strains where staffing is a daily concern.”

Schools

Education unions are calling on headteachers to “ignore” advice from Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi for schools to “combine classes” to deal with staff absences.

A joint statement from Unison, the National Education Union (NEU), GMB Union and NASUWT, states that: “DfE guidance to consider combining classes to address staff shortages will increase virus transmission, leading to further disruption, and therefore should not be adopted.”

The unions also note that in the case of special schools, “recruiting suitable cover for absent staff can be challenging and disruptive for pupils”.

“Where schools have staff shortages, they should use risk assessments and discussion with staff and parents, to decide whether additional measures need to be introduced,” the statement adds.

Social work

Children’s minister Will Quince has issued an appeal to non-working social workers who temporarily joined the social work register in March 2020 to help tackle gaps in the workforce.

He said: “There are many qualified but non practising social workers that remain on the temporary register set up in March 2020. If you’re able to support on a temporary basis, we encourage you to contact your local authority children’s social care team, or sign up with a local agency.”

Social Work England backed Quince’s call, warning that “uncertainty remains as to the impact of Covid-19 on the provision of vital services”.

A blog, published by the regulator, states: “Social workers with temporary registration status can apply for roles with local authorities, health trusts and other employers in England, helping to protect the public amidst staff shortages.”

Steve Crocker, ADCS vice president, said local authorities are planning for workforce shortages.

“Nationally we need to recruit and retain more social workers so any additional workforce shortages as a result of Covid-19 will be a challenge for us, this is why any efforts to encourage experienced social workers to support the profession and children and families once again are welcome,” he said.

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