A public health expert says childcare centres pose our greatest risk of another outbreak of coronavirus if they reopen after the lockdown without restrictions.
Dr Mike Bedford, a former early childhood education team leader for Wellington Regional Public Health, says "social distancing" is impossible in daycare because preschoolers "need to be held, need to have cuddles and play close to each other".
"Children in early childhood education (ECE) can be at an age where they are constantly touching and mouthing surfaces and objects, with surface contamination from oral and nasal secretions. Let's face it – goo is normal," he says in a column for nzherald.co.nz.
"If early childhood centres open under current regulations they could pose the greatest risk of a point-source Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand – greater than the 20-30 year age group, schools, rest homes or in-store retail."
His warning came after a Ministry of Education bulletin told schools that they would get nine days to prepare to reopen for "some but not all" of their children on April 29 if the Cabinet decides on April 20 to end the current level 4 lockdown.
The ministry told early childhood centres that they could open one day earlier: "You may wish to use Tuesday April 28 as a staff-only day, or you may choose to welcome children back from that date."
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the children of essential workers were "clearly a priority" so that their parents could go to work.
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Bedford agreed that only the children of essential workers should be allowed back to daycare centres at first to keep numbers low.
"It is very important that while we still have community transmission risk, we limit attendance to essential needs only, and we must have much better provision for space per child, teacher/child ratios and group size," he said.
Bedford's 2019 doctoral research found nine out of 21 Hutt Valley childcare centres sometimes crammed in more children per square metre than the regulations allowed, and all except two sometimes let the temperature fall below the regulated minimum of 16C.
Current regulations require a minimum of one teacher for every five children under age 2 and one for every 10 children aged 2 or over.
For comparison, Australia's ratios are 1:4 under 2 and 1:5 aged 2-plus. England's are 1:3 under 2 and 1:4 aged 2-plus.
Bedford said New Zealand's ratios were "simply dangerous in the current environment".
He said centres should only be allowed to reopen if they improved ratios to 1:3 for children under 3 and 1:5 for 3- and 4-year-olds.
He also advocates:
• Maximum room or group sizes of nine children under 3 or 15 children aged 3 or 4. Group size is currently unregulated.
• Staggering sleep times to reduce crowding, and requiring ventilated sleep rooms.
• Requiring children and staff to wash hands on arrival and before leaving the centre.
• Requiring any child or staff member with Covid-19 related symptoms to stay away and get tested.
"We can do all of this if we have fewer children attending, or children attending for fewer hours," he said.
However, Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds slammed Bedford's comments as "unhelpful and potentially misleading".
"While there's anxiety across the ECE sector for certainty on when we'll reopen, the Government and every ECE centre is putting safety first. The last thing we want is to risk our children's health or safety," he said.
"We've already had signals from Minister of Education Chris Hipkins we may be some way off reopening ECE services.
"That's despite Ministry of Health statistics showing that community transmission of Covid-19 in New Zealand is consistently low at 2 per cent. And ECE centres had already implemented a regime of hyper-cleanliness and vigilance over hand-washing and sanitising.
"We need the ECE sector to focus on ensuring a healthy and safe environment for children to make sure we're ready to reopen when it's safe to do so. The last thing we need is noise and distractions like this."
• Official advice: covid19.govt.nz.