CORONAVIRUS AND CHILDCARE: SOME HELPFUL CLARIFICATIONTuesday, 24th March 2020
Guest blog by Katie Welton-Dillon, Head of Children Law Department, Hall Brown.
Parenting can be difficult enough at any time but in these extraordinary and very worrying times there is increased pressure.
It can be hard enough for adults to come to terms with the very real threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak but explaining what it means to ‐ and comforting ‐ children adds another degree of difficulty, especially for parents who are separated or divorced.
Only at the start of this week, schools across the country were closed to all children except those of parents classed as ‘key workers’, such as those in the emergency services, whose contributions are viewed as essential to combat the spread of the virus and support their communities (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/children‐to‐attend‐
The Government’s declaration of a three‐week lock‐down intensified the strain (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment
_data/file/874742/Full_guidance_on_staying_at_home_and_away_from_others__1_.pdf). That the only reference to childcare was made in something of a brief footnote in the main announcement arguably caused more questions than answers.
It certainly didn’t help either when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, wrongly stated that children whose parents are no longer together would not be able to move between their homes. Even though Mr Gove subsequently corrected the position, there remained a need for clarity, so I thought that it might be useful to spell out the implications of the new rules.
The advice says that parents who are ‘key workers’ or whose children have been “identified as vulnerable” can still take their children to school if there is no alternative available, such as having another parent on hand too look after them at home.
For every other separated or divorce parent who has not been exposed to the virus or is not showing symptoms of it, the situation should be much the same as before. Parents should stick to existing formal or informal childcare arrangements as closely as they can, not least because it’s important to provide children with as much normality as possible under the current circumstances.
So much has changed in so many children’s lives in recent days and weeks alone, including not being able to go to school and being separated from grandparents. Change may be unavoidable, though, to limit the amount of movement between parents’ homes, for instance, but such things are always better and more easily achieved by prior agreement.
Despite how very stressful this time is for parents, they should appreciate even more than usual how important it is to put the interests of their children first and, therefore, be flexible in order to help each other out.
Technology can help. Using apps such as FaceTime or Skype between visits can assist just as regular and effective communication between parents, where if it’s safe to do so, can reduce natural anxieties.
Of course, just as at any other time, the restrictions imposed by the Prime Minister will not help all parents agree about what is best for their children.
Those who do experience problems during the course of the lock‐down period may find it difficult to have those issues resolved by the courts with anything like their usual speed. The courts are already under massive pressure and this heightened situation means that guidance issued only last week, allowing people to participate in hearings via video link rather than in person, is now likely to be redundant having already been overtaken by events. It is likely that the Court will need to prioritise cases and may treat those involving the risk of harm to a child as the most urgent.