The Government has “no intention” of closing nurseries, the Education Secretary said, as he described how many families rely on early years services.
Gavin Williamson defended his decision to keep nurseries open amid concerns over the high infection rates seen across the UK of the more transmissible Covid-19 variant.
But an education charity said the argument that nurseries provided support to families was not enough to justify keeping them open.
Speaking to MPs on the Education Select Committee, he said: “I always want to be in a position to ensure that every child can go to school and, as you’ll be aware, transmissibility among those who are youngest is very low compared to all of the settings.
“So, when you’re in a position to keep part of the education system open in the early years, I believe it was the right decision to make because so many families really rely on that nursery provision.
“Those early years are so important.”
Asked whether he would guarantee that nurseries would be kept open, Mr Williamson said there is “no intention” to close them and that the Government has “not received any contrary advice”.
Earlier this week, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer questioned whether nurseries should be open as he called for tougher lockdown rules, saying the country is “at the most serious stage” of the pandemic “and that calls for the most serious restrictions”.
Schools in England are currently closed apart from for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers.
But early years settings such as nurseries and childminders are permitted to stay open, while existing childcare bubbles are allowed to stay in place.
Last week, Early Years Alliance (EYA) said a number of nurseries in England have taken the decision to partially close amid concerns about coronavirus transmission risks.
EYA chief executive Neil Leitch said: “The Government continues to defend the decision to keep the early years sector open by stressing that parents rely on childcare settings, but of course the same is true of schools.
“As such, while many early years providers do want to deliver this vital support to families, this argument alone is not enough to justify the decision to keep them open while instructing all schools to close.”
He said there is no clear evidence to back claims that early years settings are low-risk environments, “especially in relation to the new, more transmissible strain of Covid-19”.
“Those working in the early years have a right to know exactly how much risk they are being exposed to.”
He called on the Government to provide nurseries, pre-schools and childminders protections through mass testing, priority vaccinations and access to personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Equally important is adequate financial support from the Government to ensure that they are able to remain sustainable at a time of hugely diminished demand,” he said.
“If the early years is truly as important as the Education Secretary now claims it to be, this surely isn’t too much to ask.”