Childcare sector examines how to protect workers and families from unvaccinated parents

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Childcare providers are seeking legal guidance on whether they can exclude children whose parents aren’t vaccinated against coronavirus as the sector looks at how to protect workers and families when the nation reopens.

NSW, Victoria and the Northern Territory have already mandated vaccines for childcare workers. Last week, the nation’s largest early learning provider, Goodstart, said it would require its 15,000 staff to get the jab.

The childcare sector is considering whether restrictions should be placed on unvaccinated parents to protect workers and other families from COVID-19.Credit:iStock

Victoria has gone a step further, with its road map to reopening saying when the population is between 70 per cent and 80 per cent double dosed, childcare will be available only to children of fully vaccinated parents or essential workers.

Early childhood education advocates say this seems a natural extrapolation of existing “no jab, no play” policies that require children to be immunised. The federal government also links childcare subsidies and Family Tax Benefit Part A payments to childhood immunisation.

There have been outbreaks of the Delta strain of the coronavirus in childcare centres around the country.

Australian Community Children’s Services national convenor Prue Warrilow said providers were seeking legal advice about what the requirements should be for families who weren’t vaccinated.

Options could include not allowing parents inside a centre, ruling that only someone vaccinated could drop children off, or excluding them completely.

She noted that the Fair Work Ombudsman advice around vaccine mandates suggested they were reasonable for employees in childcare centres, but it was hard to know if this could be extended to parents.

“It’s just really challenging and there’s no right or wrong,” Ms Warrilow said.

“It would be great if the government gave some very clear direction, but they haven’t done it for any other sector in terms of the wider stakeholder group, only the employees.”

Nowhere in the world has approved any COVID-19 vaccine for young children. Pfizer has finished its trials in children aged 5-11 years and the government has invited it to submit that data to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for potential approval.

With children unable to be vaccinated, health experts say the best way to protect them from the virus is to ensure all the adults around them are.

Georgie Dent, head of advocacy group The Parenthood, said it wasn’t unreasonable to recognise that if parents chose not to be vaccinated, that increased the risk to other children and the staff at their early learning service.

“In circumstances where children are not going to be able to access the vaccine themselves, I think that it is appropriate to look at what is possible in that scenario, and to explore limiting the ability of those children to participate in early learning services if that’s the position that their parents take,” she said.

“I think it’s okay to prioritise the health and safety of early educators and for that to be a significant consideration in setting guidelines for what is and isn’t appropriate.”

Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said it would be important with such policies to make sure children weren’t inadvertently excluded.

“I would hate to think that we were going to lock some vulnerable children out of preschool programs because their parents genuinely haven’t had access to a vaccination,” she said.

“But as we get closer to high community levels of vaccination, then those sorts of policies become realistic.”

She cautioned more should be done to educate staff and families about the importance of vaccination and encourage them to take it up before going down the route of a mandate.

The United Workers Union, which represents childcare workers, is “unashamedly pro-vaccination” but its early education director Helen Gibbons said any mandates need to be backed by advice from health experts.

“If they think that it’s necessary that parents should be vaccinated too, then we should take note of that,” she said.

The no jab, no play and no pay policies are based on the national immunisation program. The COVID-19 jabs weren’t listed on the program in part because of the pace of development.

However, there was now a lot of work going on to look at whether it would be better to deliver the vaccines through the established scheme instead of bespoke arrangements, said a senior government source not authorised to speak publicly.

That decision will be one for the government to make once the country is past the initial crisis.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, who oversees the federal no jab, no pay scheme, noted there were no approved vaccines for anyone aged under 12 and the government would be guided by medical advice.

“The Australian government has consistently said that the vaccination is voluntary. There are separate requirements being implemented by state and territories to encourage vaccinations through public health orders,” her spokeswoman said.

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