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From precarity in the gig economy to underfunding in the NHS, coronavirus has brutally exposed the weaknesses of our economy. Some hoped that school and nursery closures would prompt a similar lightbulb moment in relation to childcare. Without paid care and education, the formal economy would grind to a halt. Everyone would realise how utterly dependent we are on childcare, both paid and unpaid. Pressure would grow to address the chronic underfunding of early years provision and the poor pay and conditions of childcare workers, and to recognise the burden of care work in the home.

So far, the opposite has been true. The very same issues that always leave care work undervalued and invisible have ensured it remains so during lockdown. Childcare is still regarded as a private matter rather than a public good. The burdens of lockdown childcare have been quietly absorbed in the home, disproportionately by women, who flock to Facebook groups with names like “Family lockdown tips and ideas”. Families have been left to navigate the resulting financial and mental strains as best they can. Privately, governments and employers both know that unpaid childcare is essential and demanding work, and that the scale of it has just exploded. Publicly, they must pretend this work does not exist, since they have no appetite to properly support it.

The government dithered for weeks over whether parents with children at home were eligible for furlough. Guidance for schools and nurseries said that the children of key workers should be considered for places, “so long as their job cannot be done from home”. The implication was that, if parents could be physically in the same place as their children, they could simply carry on working as normal. And employers responded accordingly: I have heard countless stories of parents being told to take unpaid leave or face the sack if they could not juggle work and care – from call centres to universities.

Meanwhile, undervalued childcare workers have continued to get a raw deal – either furloughed on less than a living wage, or asked to keep working on an extremely risky frontline. Nannies – many of them migrant women with few rights at work – often face a particularly stark choice between risky work and destitution, prompting the launch of a solidarity fund to support those in hardship. A shocking one in four childcare providers fear they will not survive the year, as government support fails to plug the gap in an already precarious sector.

Now, the easing of lockdown has thrown these issues into stark relief. Those paid to look after our children – from teachers to childminders – are being asked to put their health on the line so parents can return to work. It’s increasingly clear that this is what the row over schools reopening is really about. Why else would the government start with the youngest children, hardest to socially distance but also hardest to look after while working? Hand-wringing over educational inequalities rings hollow: these voices were curiously silent eight weeks ago, when the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) called for universal access to home-schooling resources such as laptops to prevent low-income children falling behind.

As ever, early-years is the poor cousin of education. Boris Johnson’s televised address did not even mention it. The reopening of schools has dominated the headlines – without such strong unions to fight for them, childcare workers’ campaign to stop nurseries reopening has received next to no attention. Yet PPE and staying two metres apart are fantasy concepts when dealing with babies and toddlers who need a cuddle or a nappy change. “You have to switch off from the fear, or you wouldn’t be able to do the job,” one worker told me. Even as it tacitly acknowledges that the economy cannot function without these people, the government remains unwilling to protect them accordingly.

Meanwhile, the essential role of unpaid childcare is still ignored. In keeping with the relentless focus on restarting work, households can now mix for childcare purposes, but only if the care is provided by a paid nanny or childminder. Friends and relatives are still banned from helping each other out for free. This puts families and childcare workers alike in a bind. Childminders desperate to keep their own families safe may now be forced to put them at risk by inviting children into their homes. Parents who cannot afford childcare are being sent back to work but threatened with fines if anyone from their own family helps them.

Perhaps, after all, this will trigger a lightbulb moment, and paid and unpaid carers will find common cause. As long as our care work is erased or undervalued, the intolerable pressures of the pandemic cannot be resolved. They can only be shunted around the system, pushed from frazzled and overworked parents on to underpaid and at-risk teachers and childcare workers. If any of us protest, we are decried as insufficiently committed.

Michael Gove told teachers: “If you really care about children, you will want them to be in school.” A Twitter troll lambasted me for daring to suggest that looking after my one-year-old might be considered work: “You chose to have him.” Both men are saying that for those who nurture children, nothing less than unlimited self-sacrifice is good enough.

We shouldn’t stand for such emotional blackmail. Teachers, parents, childcare workers: we all make sacrifices for the love of our children. As one nanny put it to me, “We are 100% used to putting ourselves second.” Lockdown hawks will keep trying to pit us against each other and weaponise this love against us. If we want to face them down, we need to have each other’s backs.

Schools and nurseries must not reopen until it is safe. But to make this possible, parents will need to be properly supported to care for their children at home. They must have the right to paid time off work and the resources for distance learning. Childcare settings need more financial support to remain viable, ideally with strings attached to drive up the quality of early-years care. And when all this is over, there must be a reckoning: on government funding of early years, on pay and conditions for childcare workers, on workplace rights such as shared parental leave. We must demand better for ourselves and our children – and we must do it together.

Christine Berry is a researcher, writer and consultant


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