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Living with Covid-19 in the early years: A brave new world?

date April 29, 2022Rebecca Martland


Since 1st April 2022, there has been a major shift in the way people in England are expected to view and approach Covid-19, and whilst for many the changes appear foolish, it seems they are no joke.

Gone is free testing, mandatory self-isolation and compulsory mask-wearing. After two years of being told that Covid-19 is a deadly disease and that these measures are essential to protect and save lives, it is a big ask of anyone to be expected to suddenly abandon them. It is no wonder then that people are confused and scared, including those in the early years sector, who have been on the front line from the start.

What is the government saying?

The key messages are that:

  • Covid-19 has mutated into a more infectious but milder variant, and therefore presents a lower level of threat than at the start of the pandemic.
  • There is a vaccination programme in place to protect those who choose to access this.
  • There are now effective treatments meaning that if someone does become unwell the risk of death or serious illness is much lower than before.
  • Those who are potentially more vulnerable (e.g., due to their occupation or medical condition) remain eligible for free tests.
  • The way forward relies on common sense measures – including good hygiene practice and self-responsibility if someone feels unwell.

Consequently we are at the point where we now have to learn to live with Covid-19 in the same way that we do other respiratory illnesses, recognising that although for some, more vulnerable members of the community, it will be more dangerous, for most it should be no worse than catching a bad cold.

child aged 2 covering his face with one hand while he sneezes

What is the new guidance in England?

(read on for guidance on Wales and Scotland)

If someone has mild symptoms of a respiratory infection that may be Covid-19 (such as a runny nose, sore throat, or slight cough) but feels well enough, they should carry on as normal but take good hygiene precautions, just as they would if they had a cold. They do not need to take a Covid test.

If someone has a high temperature and/or does not feel well enough to go to work or carry out normal activities, they should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people until their temperature has gone down or until they no longer feel quite so unwell. They do not need to take a Covid test.

The same principle applies to children. They only need to stay away from school or their childcare setting if they have a high temperature or they are too unwell to attend and take part in normal activities. They should not take a Covid test.

Updated symptoms of Covid-19

The government has updated the list of possible Covid-19 symptoms, but as these are also commonly associated with many other respiratory infections, they cannot be used to diagnose a specific condition:

  • continuous cough
  • high temperature, fever or chills
  • loss of, or change in, sense of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained tiredness, lethargy
  • muscle aches or pains
  • poor appetite
  • unusual or longer lasting headache
  • sore throat, stuffy or runny nose
  • diarrhoea, feeling sick or being sick

Can we still test for Covid-19?

A question commonly being asked on social media forums is should childminders or staff be testing themselves if they are symptomatic or asking families to test children who are unwell.

The guidance on testing however is a clear no: it is not now recommended, except for the groups listed below, and specifically, not at all for those under the age of 18, unless directed to do so by a health professional.

Free testing is currently only available to certain groups:

  • NHS health care professionals, delivering direct patient care
  • social workers
  • personal assistants (health care)
  • Shared Lives carers
  • Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors
  • care homes, domiciliary care, supported living services, and adult day care centre staff
  • people with certain health conditions who might be eligible for new treatments
  • people due to have surgery or procedures in hospital or otherwise asked to test by a health professional.

Some practitioners are naturally concerned by this guidance however, and in many cases are continuing to test themselves and asking parents to test children, either by using leftover NHS lateral flow tests or buying commercial tests.

If an early years practitioner, having disregarded government guidance, subsequently tests positive, they should stay at home and avoid others as much as possible for 5 days, from the day following the test. This means childminders should close for this period. Childminders do not have to close if someone in their household tests positive, but they do need to take sensible hygiene precautions and ensure that the children do not come into contact with the positive person. If a child tests positive, they should remain away from the setting for 3 days from the day following the test.

In any case, anyone who has a high temperature, or is still feeling unwell, should not attend the setting, even if they have completed their isolation period. There is no requirement to take a further test or show evidence of a negative test to return to the setting following a period of isolation.

Group settings and childminders with assistants will need to consider their staff contracts and may need to take professional advice if they wish to either insist on staff taking tests; or if they want to put a policy in place to manage staff absence in situations where a member of staff tests positive having chosen to self-test against government guidance.

childminder talking to parents

Similarly, group settings and childminders might want to consult with their insurance providers if they decide to put in place a policy requiring the testing of symptomatic children, or that insists on a negative test in order for the child to return. They should consider where they might stand legally if a parent refused to test their child on the grounds that this goes against government guidance for under 18s. Would the insurance company defend the setting if the parent pursued them for breach of contract and loss of earnings due to having to care for their child whilst the child was excluded due to refusing to test for example? Where would the setting stand with a policy that requires an exclusion period greater than the 3 days recommended?


Summary of guidance for early years settings in England

  • Any respiratory illness symptoms like a cold, flu, Covid-19, should be treated in the same way:
    • Mild symptoms, not particularly unwell: carry on as usual
      • Stay hydrated & take painkillers as needed
      • Maintain good hygiene practices
    • Feel very unwell and unable to do normal activities/work: stay home till well enough
      • High temperature: stay home till it’s gone
      • Avoid contact with other people, especially vulnerable
      • Seek medical help if needed
  • No need to test
    • Testing for Covid-19 is no longer required or recommended except in very specific circumstances or if advised by a health professional
    • Under 18s should not be tested at all unless specifically asked to by a health professional
  • If someone does test positive, they are recommended to stay home and avoid contact with others for 5 days following the test (3 days for under 18s)
    • No need for a further negative ‘test to release’
  • Childminders do not need to close if someone in their household has Covid-19: risk assess to prevent spread of infection
Helpful links

People with symptoms of a respiratory infection including COVID-19

Living safely with respiratory infections, including COVID-19

Emergency planning and response for education, childcare, and children’s social care settings

Health protection in education and childcare settings

mum measuring child's temperature as they are unwell

What is the guidance in Wales?

If someone over the age of five develops any of the original three main Covid-19 symptoms of continuous cough, high temperature or loss/change to taste or smell, they should take a lateral flow test. These are still available free of charge in Wales. Children under 5 should not be tested unless advised to by a doctor or a parent chooses to do so.

If someone receives a positive test, the result should be registered online and they may be contacted by the Test, Trace and Protect service. They should self-isolate for 5 full days from the day following the day symptoms started and continue to isolate for up to 10 days or until they have received two negative tests from day 6, on consecutive days, taken 24 hours apart. After day 10 no further testing is required and as long as they feel well and there is no temperature self-isolation can end.

All other guidance regarding close contacts etc. is the same as for England.

Helpful links

Self-isolation: guidance for people with COVID-19 and their contacts

Welsh Guidance for Childcare and Playwork

What is the guidance in Scotland?

From 1st May 2022, the guidance in Scotland becomes almost identical to that for England.

  • The symptoms list has been updated, similar to the English list.
  • Stay at home if too unwell to work or attend childcare or have a high temperature but otherwise continue as normal.
  • Testing is no longer required or advised except for certain occupations or groups, such as those with certain health conditions, or as advised by a health professional. Children under 18 should not be tested unless directed by a health professional.
  • Isolate if possible, for 5 (adults) or 3 (under 18s) full days following a positive test.
  • Contact tracing has ceased

Helpful links

Coronavirus (COVID-19): early learning and childcare services

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Guidance for individuals with possible coronavirus infection

rebecca martland kinderly expert

About the author

With over 20 years’ experience in the early years sector, Rebecca Martland is an early years trainer, consultant, author and 4-times Ofsted ‘outstanding’ registered childminder. Rebecca is a staunch advocate of play based, child-centred education and childcare, with a keen interest in supporting and enthusing others to share this philosophy.

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