Frances O’Grady: Childcare could be a “massive problem” if schools close due to coronavirus

The TUC general secretary warns that a lack of affordable childcare could be more of an issue for workers than sick pay if the government asks schools and nurseries to close

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Childcare could be a “massive problem” for workers if the government decides to close schools and nurseries to delay the spread of coronavirus, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has told the New Statesman

In an interview with the Spotlight policy supplement, to be published in full later this year, O’Grady said the lack of affordable childcare alternatives could present problems “potentially on an even bigger scale than the sick pay problem” for those on low and ordinary salaries if the government opts for school closures.

O’Grady added that, ultimately, childcare and sick pay are part of “the same problem” and that low-paid workers “are hit hardest”. 

“Obviously there is the universal right to emergency leave, which I think would kick in in the event of school closures,” she said, “but – and it's a big but – it's unpaid. If you're on an ordinary wage, never mind a low wage, what are you going to do if you can't find and afford alternative childcare arrangements?” 

Countries across the globe have announced school closures to deal with the public health crisis, including France, Belgium, the Republic of Ireland, the Philippines, and some states in the US, India and Germany. Boris Johnson’s government has not taken such steps, though school trips abroad have been banned.

Announcing yesterday (12 March) that the country is moving into the second, “delay”, phase of its plan to deal with the virus, the Prime Minister said, “We are not closing schools now, the scientific advice is this could do more harm than good.” He added that the government is “keeping this under review and this may change as the disease spreads. Schools should only close if they are specifically advised to do so.” Among the concerns is that closed schools would leave many working parents relying on grandparents to help with childcare, placing some of those most vulnerable to Covid-19 at risk. 

O’Grady added: “It's a massive problem, and potentially on an even bigger scale than the sick pay problem, because there are obviously millions of working parents who are about to face potentially some really big problems in terms of practical childcare arrangements.” 

In the Budget earlier this week (11 March), Chancellor Rishi Sunak included measures to help workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic, such as extending statutory sick pay to help those self-isolating and those caring for others self-isolating. Sunak also announced greater support through the welfare system for workers who cannot claim statutory sick pay and a hardship fund to be distributed by local authorities. Responding to the Budget, O’Grady said that: “[The] announcements won’t help the nearly two million people who miss out on sick pay because they don’t earn enough. Telling them to turn to the broken benefits system isn’t good enough.” 

“They are taking it step by step,” O’Grady said when asked about the fact the Budget did not include measures to support working families who may need help to stay home with their children if the situation worsens. “Nevertheless, if you were anticipating some of the steps that other countries are taking and that may need to be taken here then this is a big issue for working families. What do you do if the school closes?”

To read past Spotlight supplements, click here

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.

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