As the news of promising vaccines brings hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight, people across the UK are looking forward to getting back to normal.
But for the parents of young children, this optimism is tempered with anxiety; we are worried because, increasingly, it seems that this new “normal” will be one in which we are expected to return to the workplace without access to childcare.
After eight months of lockdowns, confused and contradictory guidance and lack of financial support, nearly a quarter of the UK’s childcare providers now face closure, and many more have had to drastically cut back provision. Yet, despite repeated calls from the sector and worried parents, the government has utterly failed to respond.
Ask any working parent how they managed without childcare during the first lockdown and you are likely to hear a similar story of stress and frantic juggling.
As a divorced mum to a four-year-old who was in full-time day care when Covid hit, I was directly affected by nursery closures during the first lockdown. Those seemingly endless weeks of simultaneous childcare and work felt like some kind of sadistic endurance test.
The mental load of having to split myself into two people was overwhelmingly difficult and draining. On the one hand, the attentive home-schooling mother, making sure my daughter’s activities were educational, enriching and fun; on the other, the hard-working professional, teaching via blurry Zoom calls while trying to get a new business off the ground at possibly the most inopportune moment in living memory.
Yet, I have the privilege of being able to work online and am fortunate enough to have a responsible co-parent and a supportive family. I had only a fraction of the load other women carry – those who have lost their jobs, are also caring for relatives, live alone or have partners who are abusive or shirk their responsibilities.
Even more so than usual, women have been expected to pick up the slack during the pandemic and inequalities in the workplace and the home have been brought starkly to light. This extra load has already taken its toll on the physical and mental health of so many mums. But while balancing childcare with working from home has been exhausting, balancing childcare with a return to the workplace will be simply impossible for many.
That’s why childcare must be at the heart of our economic recovery. Not only does the sector employ over a million people, it also supports the employment of parents in all other sectors of the economy. If the pandemic ends and the furlough scheme winds up without steps to rescue childcare, millions of jobs will be at risk.
But, although securing parents’ wellbeing, mothers’ access to employment and economic recovery are all persuasive arguments on their own, this is not just about those issues. It is also about the wellbeing of a whole generation of children.
It could be decades before the full impact of the pandemic on children’s mental and physical health, opportunities and attainment is understood. The media has so far largely focused on the disruption to schooling and exams (which is of course important), but the impacts of stressed parenting and isolation from other children their age may also have long-term consequences on their social and emotional well-being, particularly for young children who are still in the early, life-defining stages of development.
We must not blame already overburdened mothers if their kids – like many others – continue to struggle after the strain of repeated lockdowns. Instead we must focus on the government, which has failed to appreciate the full impact of this crisis through a child’s eyes and has yet to provide the support required to facilitate healthy cognitive, social and emotional development as we move on from this crisis.
Proper investment in childcare is an investment in our children and our communities that is sorely needed if we really which to “build back better” and more equal. That’s why the Women’s Equality Party is calling on the government for a conditional bailout package, in which emergency funding is provided to small and medium sized childcare providers to see them through the rest of the pandemic in return for their commitment to avoid redundancies, pay a real living wage and ring-fence places for families using the free entitlement scheme. Such a bailout would support the childcare sector to deliver more of the flexible, affordable care that is so sorely needed.
If the government was willing to plough millions of taxpayer pounds into PPE that was unfit for use, there is absolutely no earthly reason why it can’t invest in our children -who are not only the future of our economy, but of our country as a whole.
Sarah Leaf is the Women’s Equality Party GLA candidate for Bexley.