Forget transport, COVID-19 secure offices, and whether furloughed workers can be dragged away from their gardens.
There’s one thing stopping Britain getting fully back to work after lockdown and it’s simply not being talked about enough.
Childcare is a carefully woven tapestry of schools, nurseries, after school clubs, breakfast clubs, grandparents, nannies and calling in favours from friends.
Pull one thread, and the whole thing can unravel.
And right now, many parents simply don’t have the childcare support they need (41% of working mums with children under 10, according to an ICM survey for the TUC.)
Schools may have returned, but many breakfast and after school clubs remain closed. A 3pm pick up is – for many – simply unrealistic. And barely a week after schools returned for the new academic year, thousands of pupils have been sent home after positive cases. In some schools, whole year groups are being sent home to isolate if just one child tests positive.
Grandparents are the unpaid army providing essential support to working mums and dads. But the evidence shows that older people are more at risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. For many families – particularly if the grandparents have underlying health conditions or if they are shielding – this may be a risk too far.
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And while nurseries have opened again, thousands are at risk of going bust.
It’s an issue that we’ve investigated this week on Sophy Ridge on Sunday. I visited Stockwell Gardens Nursery and Pre School to talk to parents.
I interviewed June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation which operates nurseries across the capital.
She warned that many nurseries are on the edge financially because “occupancy levels” – the number of children attending – have still not recovered.
Now, with infections rising again, concerns are growing that nurseries may be forced to close their doors again – which Ms O’Sullivan fears could push many over the edge.
If nurseries and schools close – whether in response to positive COVID-19 cases or another lockdown – many parents will simply be unable to work.
The good employers will be flexible and understanding. But we live in the real world, and not everyone has a flexible and understanding employer.
So what could the consequences be?
Frances O’Grady, head of the TUC, said the fallout will hit women hardest.
She told me: “The risk here is that we see attitudes and behaviours setting women back decades.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of equal pay, respect for women, a recognition that women want to get on at work as much as men.
“But when women are picking up the lion’s share of the burden, not just of childcare but it looks like housework too, that makes life difficult, and it has exposed just how fragile and underfunded our childcare system is.”
She added: “I think life is really tough for working parents but especially working mums who are bearing the brunt of it and especially people with kids under 10.
“What we’re hearing is that even with kids going back to school, nurseries are still struggling, some are putting caps on numbers, the breakfast clubs for older children, after school clubs, aren’t necessarily up and running.
“And of course that whole network that working parents rely on of mates and grandparents and childminders is under real pressure. So I think there are an awful lot of working mums out there who are feeling really stressed right now.”
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