England’s schools will remain closed until after the February half-term, except for children of key workers and the vulnerable.
However, early years settings such as nurseries and childminding services will continue operating.
During the March 2020 lockdown, the Government told nurseries and other registered childcare providers to close their doors to the majority of children to curb the virus spread.
Operators and staff have expressed their anger at a lack of consultation with the sector over the latest measures.
They have raised concerns about staff safety, a lack of financial support and vaccinations and demanded to see the scientific evidence behind the decision.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “It beggars belief that the Government still isn’t able to answer one critical question: if it is too dangerous for schools to remain open, how can it be safe for early years providers to do so?
“Many of those working in the early years feel terrified and abandoned by the government. They are being asked to remain on the frontline during the most worrying period of a global pandemic with no PPE, no testing and no access to vaccinations.
“Add to this the fact that the government is providing minimal financial support to help providers get through this incredibly difficult period and it’s hard to think of many other sectors that have been asked to do so much while being been treated with such disdain.
“The early years cannot be treated as an afterthought. We need protection, we need financial support and we need the appalling treatment of our sector to end once and for all.”
Mr Leitch is expecting to meet with children’s minister Vicky Ford today and will attend a separate meeting with the Government’s scientific advisers (SAGE) on Wednesday.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was asked on BBC Breakfast why nurseries were staying open and replied: “We believe that it’s important to continue to provide childcare and the judgment that we’ve made is that by making sure that childcare can be provided we can ensure that some of the people whose work is so vital getting us out of this lockdown – doctors, nurses and others – can continue to do their work.”
However Mr Leitch hit back: “But nurseries and childminders have been asked to stay open to all children, not just those of critical workers. How can it be that a senior minister doesn’t even understand what the government is actually asking early years providers to do?”
One nursery worker wrote on social media: “I work in a nursery. The early years cannot social distance.
“Just today I was sneezed and coughed on more times than I can count and we’re expected to remain open during a national lockdown.”
Another said they were “sick to death” of early years being “pushed aside” adding: “What, am I invincible because I work in a nursery? Absolute joke.”
One worker wrote: “So I have to keep going to work as a nursery practitioner with no PPE or social distancing from the kids but they won’t give me a vaccine?
“I don’t understand how this is safe for us being surrounded by 20 children and five other adults but no protection. Do early years practitioners not matter?”
Labour MP Tulip Siddiq has written to the Government to demand clarity over the safety of nurseries as well as reassurances on financial support.
She urged the Government to target financial support at the early years sector and rethink the recent “misguided decision” to change early years funding so that it is based on current occupancy rather than pre-Covid occupancy levels.
She wrote: “Allowing early years settings to stay open will not be enough to ensure their survival, as there were already 20,000 providers at risk of closure within six months after the Spring term funding changes.
“To proceed with these changes would be a death knell for many nurseries and childminding businesses, and I urge you to rethink this now completely untenable decision.”
Asked about the science behind why schools have closed but nurseries remain open, virologist and SAGE member Professor Calum Semple told BBC Breakfast: “The reality is, under these circumstances, every opportunity to remove social mixing and work mixing of human beings is vitally important.
“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 gotten 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.”
The Department for Education told the Standard that they were closing schools not because they are “unsafe” but because additional measures are needed to contain the spread of the virus.
They said those measures enabled them to keep nurseries and childminders open and therefore support parents and deliver the “crucial care and education” needed by young children.
They insisted that early years settings remain “low risk environments” for children and staff.
According to the department, 0-5 year olds continue to have the lowest rates of coronavirus of all age groups and there is “no evidence” that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children.
They added: “Early years settings have been open to all children since 1 June and there is no evidence that the early years sector has contributed to a rise in virus cases within the community.”