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If you have a child at school, you will be a member of the WhatsApp group for their class (this is both a curse and a blessing). Mine went into overdrive on Wednesday evening following news that schools across the UK would close from Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At first, parents were vying to ping over impressive-looking links to home schooling sites, extolling the virtues of domestic education.
It wasn’t until later that evening — once people had considered the practicalities of educating children in a house where both parents were working from home — that the messages changed tone and became more panicky.
“I’m not sure this is going to work. I can’t really do my job from home and I certainly can’t with a three-year-old around,” one mother said. “We only have one computer in our house and now four people will need to use it,” said another. The message that finally brought a smile to my face was from someone who said she was just going to “use the TV as a babysitter and feed the kids fish fingers for the next few months”.
European countries including Spain, France, Italy and Ireland already have full school closures in place and now Britain will join them, although exceptions will be made for children of key workers, which includes NHS workers, school staff and delivery drivers, among others.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the government was aiming to provide an “education setting” for 10 per cent of the children who usually attend schools.
While I support the closure decision, it provides yet more uncertainty for working parents in an already precarious financial position. Many were already worried about their ability to hang on to their jobs as a result of the effect on the economy of the coronavirus crisis.
Many parents, like us, will have paid fees upfront for childcare for the next few months and now face more costs for emergency childcare — or the prospect of taking prolonged time off work. Scottish schools do not expect to reopen until the autumn.
My husband and I both work (he’s freelance and I’m part-time). We run a tight ship financially and rely heavily on grandparents for childcare outside term time. Yet this option, for us and millions of others, has also been taken away.
As the people most at risk of serious coronavirus infection, the elderly must self-isolate. Nobody will want to risk the health of their family members — but anyone who has seen the numbers of grandmothers and grandfathers at the school gates will know how many working parents rely on their generosity.
Figures from SunLife report there are about 14m grandparents in the UK — more than one-third of whom provide regular childcare for their grandchildren. Based on the average support of eight hours a week, grandparents as a whole have been saving their families £22.5bn each year in childcare costs — a huge figure for parents to replace.
Hiring an emergency childcare provider to cover full-time working hours for 50 hours a week would cost about £240 over five days for one child, according to Becky O’Connor of insurer Royal London. The typical cost of an after-school childminder is just £72 a week, by comparison. If you’re using the government’s tax-free childcare scheme, that £240 a week reduces to £192.
While it is still possible, albeit difficult, to find childminders and babysitters who can be booked at the last minute, most of these will not be eligible for tax-free childcare payments (you have to be officially registered before you can sign up to receive TFC payments via the government website). So anyone using emergency care of this kind is not going to get the tax break they’re entitled to.
For working parents, the cost of emergency childcare may simply be unmanageable. Ms O’Connor warns that many individuals could end up in debt through paying for childcare to keep their jobs.
Parents worried about their financial situation should check if they are eligible for help with childcare costs, whether through universal credit or tax-free childcare. You can check this on the Childcare Choices section of the gov.uk website.
Even if you are able to afford it, the rules linked to social distancing and the closure of many childcare providers to combat the spread of coronavirus could scupper your arrangements. Here, those individuals with live-in nannies will be at a distinct advantage over the rest of us — except, of course, if your au pair or nanny gets sick too.
If working from home as well as home schooling children is too difficult, there is something else that might help. Parents are entitled to take time off work if their children’s school is closed, known as “dependent leave”, which allows mums and dad to take time off to deal with an unexpected problem or emergency. The downside of this is that you might not get paid, unless your employer decides to.
According to Citizens Advice, everyone is allowed a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency. It’s important to note that what counts as “reasonable” depends on the circumstances — and what might be deemed “reasonable” with regard to coronavirus is a grey area in law. Your employer may pay you for a short period of time off, even if it’s not a contractual right. Alternatively, you could see if you are able to work from home, change your shift pattern, or take annual leave.
These are unprecedented times. Many employers will want to try to make it work, but if the government wants to shore up the economy then it must consider offering additional financial support. This could be similar to the emergency childcare vouchers in Italy, or the financial payouts that have been announced for the US.
But childcare does not seem to feature highly on this political landscape — there was very little mention of working parents or the rising cost of childcare in the Budget last week, despite Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor, pledging to pump billions of pounds into infrastructure.
There needs to be more focus on helping working parents in this precarious time — this should come from the government in the form of financial help, but it will also have to come from employers in the form of more flexible working arrangements. Families themselves will need to embrace more equal childcare arrangements too. Those with two working parents could draw up a rota to split the childcare 50:50 so both partners can continue working.
I’m not kidding myself that the next few weeks and months won’t be tough. But perhaps in the long run, this could trigger a positive change in the way parents with children work, and even boost the profile of flexible working.
Read more about the impact of coronavirus
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