Childcare support for doctors must improve

Doctors have been unable to work because they cannot find sufficient childcare, says BMA representative body chair Helena McKeown

Location: UK
Published: Wednesday 20 May 2020
child play

Securing the right care for your children while you are at work can be challenging and make you feel anxious and stressed at the best of times.

Many doctors, and other key workers, have felt these pressures more acutely during the COVID-19 pandemic, when their normal arrangements have suddenly been unavailable and they face unprecedented pressures at work.

With one-in-four doctors reporting worsening mental distress during the pandemic, they need rest and support outside of work, not additional stress.

The Government allowed childcare providers to remain open for children of key workers throughout the lockdown.

However, at least 57 per cent of childcare and early-years settings were forced to close because the Government provided them with insufficient financial support to compensate for the loss of the majority of their parental fees.

Some fear that they may not be able to reopen for some time, or at all, as they face a prolonged period of uncertainty, reduced parental demand and the need to adapt their businesses to minimise infection risks.

I have heard from our members of the severe impact sudden closure of nurseries and childminders has had on them and their families.

Many have struggled to find new childcare while also facing short-notice changes to shifts and demands to work longer hours. If childcare can be found, there is the anxiety and stress of having to drop children off and settle them into unfamiliar environments and, for some, the added disruption of having to use multiple childcare providers to meet their current needs.

I have heard from two-doctor families who are choosing to work more nights so one is always staying home with the children. Some have had to turn to more expensive forms of care and they have struggled to manage the additional costs.

It is deeply frustrating that doctors playing a vital role during this time are being penalised in this way. You can read a more detailed briefing on managing childcare during the pandemic here

The lack of childcare support for key workers is not just affecting parents and their families, but the wider workforce and health service, as we see doctors who are fit and want to be at work forced to stay home.

Our latest BMA COVID-19 tracker survey has shown that 13 per cent of doctors have been unable to work or reduced their hours as they could not find sufficient childcare.

Earlier this month, I sent a letter to the education secretary sharing four ‘asks’ to support doctors with childcare:

  • Additional childcare costs for doctors working during the outbreak to be reimbursed
  • The provision of additional financial and logistical support for nurseries and childcare providers to prevent permanent closures
  • Local authorities to collaborate with local NHS bodies and childcare providers to secure childcare provision for NHS staff
  • Employers to ensure consistency across local policy arrangements so that carers’ leave is fully paid during lockdown.

I want to stress that difficulties with childcare have not emerged because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have simply had light shed upon them.

As a working parent, I am all too aware of the UK’s unsustainable and costly approach to childcare. Parents in the UK are faced with the highest net childcare costs across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations and these costs could well go up as the childcare sector tries to recover from the huge impact of COVID-19.   

I am also acutely aware that the medical profession can be unsupportive of doctors with caring responsibilities. The structures of certain specialties and training paths are incompatible with the flexibility and plannability that parents need.

As Baroness Deech said in her important Women in Medicine report more than a decade ago: ‘Looking after children is an important phase in life, but it is crucial that decisions made at this time do not deleteriously affect future careers.’

The lack of adequate and affordable childcare provision in this country and the lack of flexibility and accommodation of caring responsibilities in the medical careers means that many, most often women, have ended up making choices that limited their progression, opportunities – and the contribution they could make to healthcare – over the longer term.  

Now this crisis has brought attention to this issue and the wider issue of social care, I think we need to use this opportunity to call for substantial change in how we value and invest in our caring services.

It will also be a good time to reflect on what we have learned from this crisis, in terms of reconfiguring services and using remote working, which could make medical careers more adaptable to the need of those with caring responsibilities.