UPDATE 24/04/2020 - The ECC has removed its open letter asking the PM to keep ECE services closed in Alert Level 3. It's now not saying the Government should keep ECE closed. This may be an admission that it was trying to keep all of ECE closed just for the financial benefit of itself, and/ or its centre members.
On Sunday 19th April, a quiet news day and on the eve of the PM’s announcement as to whether NZ would be moving out of lockdown, a business group representative Peter Reynolds, took to the media and said: don't re-open ECE centres under Alert Level 3.
“Our primary concern is the threat of carrier risk,” said Reynolds of the Early Childhood Council (ECC) in the open letter to the PM published on its website.
The ECC’s media play came after the Ministry of Education sent out a bulletin with special safety ‘rules’ for ECE service operation under Alert Level 3 on Friday 17th April.
The NZ Herald was among the first to report that "New Zealand's childcare centres have asked the Government to let them stay closed at level 3 of the coronavirus alert system because of the risk of spreading the virus"
Reynolds mentioned to 1 News TVNZ that meeting these rules could be a problem in terms of the current quality of its centres – one child for each three metres of space “for some childcare centres that is simply not possible. So, this is starting to look like some centres are not going to be able to open”.
On Tuesday 21 April Reynolds told Radio NZ: "The Government has heard that we're concerned and they've chosen to ignore and that's deeply disturbing.”
He added: “We would hope that centres see sense with this. If they have any level of discomfort with the issue at all or their staff have a level of discomfort, then they'll choose the sensible path forward and not reopen at this moment."
Yet shortly before NZ went into lockdown, Reynolds expressed disappointment that parents were pulling their children out of ECE, suggesting that parent fear around infection was not justified.
Reynolds said that “in the past week several early childhood centres had reported that families were refusing to send their children. … He could understand that fear and anxiety was driving the reaction, but it appeared that young children were less likely to be affected by the virus than adults.” (RNZ report 17 March 2020).
His statement was counter to the concern that was held in the sector at the time about the lack of measures to keep children and teachers safe (see survey results here). Then, our country’s borders were open, people coming in from overseas weren’t quarantined, and there was little testing of people for Covid-19.
Now when ECE opens under Alert Level 3, ECE will be required to operate safely within the parameters set by the public health measures. New operating rules include caring for children in smaller 'bubbles' or groups of no more than 10 children and only increasing to 20 children when safety processes are working well, and increasing the amount of measured space per child. As well children cannot attend two or more ECE settings and can only attend one.
So, why has the ECC done a U-turn and argued that it's not safe for children to be in ECE?
Something else was going on behind the scenes in the ECC that was not revealed to the media.
For years the ECC has promoted an insurance scheme that provided business interruption insurance including against a pandemic. The ECC earned commission. The scheme boosted membership numbers as service owners got a discount on it by joining the ECC.
The ECC was under a great deal of pressure from policy holders. This was evident in communications from owners who held the insurance and evident in social media.
“Twelve months coverage for loss against pandemic. Oh....only if you are in lockdown. No we are getting legal advice on that. Had no contact unless I have chased it. No guidance even though I’ve asked for it and need it. It’s under the ECC scheme with Crombie Lockwood. I’ve asked Peter Reynolds to support us as members, collectively. No response. Crombie Lockwood replies with a rather staunch email. I think the ECC Crombie Lockwood policy holders need to unite and get answers. We aren’t going to beat the big boys as individuals,” said one poster on social media.
Clients who hold business interruption cover as part of their early childhood business insurance are advised of the following, for issues or claims related to the current COVID-19 outbreak.
A COVID-19 exclusion will be applied for new policies and future renewals. This exclusion is not unique to our scheme but is being applied to pandemic policies worldwide by insurers. (Note that claims will be paid for the continuous closure period that commenced March 24 2020, up to a maximum of the policy cap regardless of your policy renewal date.) Statement from the insurance company’s website (copy retrieved on 21 April 2020)
On Wednesday 22nd April the insurance company informed that it would continue to cover services for loss in Alert Level 3 even if there was not an ordered closure.
Now that the insurance uncertainty is sorted, will Reynolds continue to push for the government to make every centre stay closed in Alert Level 3? Watch and listen.
Reynolds has duped the NZ Herald and major media outlets that took the call at face value and did not ask what motivated it. He's created hysteria around Government instruction for ECE to re-open under Level 3 instead of calmness. What the ECC may be hoping for now is for other centres to have planned to remain closed based on Reynold's call, so that its own centres may pick up enrolments from families who need childcare.
For some children and some adults (such as those in vulnerable groups) staying at home is advised by the Government. ChildForum has no reason to doubt the professional health advice on which the government's decision to re-open is based. Teachers have, indeed the whole ECE sector has, an obligation to work in the best interests of children, parents and whānau, and their local communities. If families need somewhere for their children to be safe when parents return to work, then ECE should step up and accept that challenge. Of course, people feel concerned and uncertain. That is perfectly natural - we all are. However, we should not be arguing against the government's decision, we should be thinking about how best to implement appropriate processes in our centres. We should be there for the children, parents and whānau that need us."