Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): early learning and childcare services

Non-statutory guidance to support the continued safe operation of ELC settings.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): early learning and childcare services


Who this guidance is for

This guidance is for the early learning and childcare (ELC) sector, and aims to help settings operate safely during coronavirus.

It applies to all providers of registered day care of children’s services who provide care to children under primary school age, including:

  • nurseries
  • playgroups
  • family centres
  • creches

It also applies to fully outdoor services for children aged 5 and under.


We know there are challenges in delivering services in the evolving COVID-19 situation in Scotland, including Early Learning and Childcare (ELC). In line with Realising the Ambition, our focus must be on supporting children to form a secure and emotionally resilient attachment base which will stand them in good stead as they grow and develop. Nurturing and attached relationships are essential to creating the conditions for children to flourish in ELC.

All children have a right to play, to learn and to access experiences that meet their physical, social, emotional and cultural needs, and they have a right to associate with their peers. In line with Scotland's commitment to Getting It Right For Every Child, children also have the right to the best possible health, with their best interests a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect them. Adults, of course, also have fundamental rights in relation to their health and wellbeing. These important rights and considerations have all been factored into the development of a framework for delivering ELC services.

While the vaccination of adults has changed the relative rates of transmission, evidence continues to confirm that younger children are at lower risk of clinical disease from COVID-19 than are older children and adults. There is no evidence of any difference in the risk of severe COVID-19 among pre-school, primary and secondary school teachers, relative to other adults of a similar age. While we continue to make progress in suppressing the virus, ELC settings must place very high priority on reinforcing the mitigations set out in this guidance.

This guidance provides principles to help you make decisions based on the best available evidence to help you operate in a changed context. It will not provide the specific answer to every circumstance which may arise, but it will provide the basis upon which you can use your professional judgement to make a decision.

If the circumstances of the epidemic in Scotland change, further changes to public health measures may be required and will be clearly notified to the sector. The Scottish Government will engage with sector representatives to ensure that any immediate changes are communicated to the sector as quickly as possible.

Please be aware that public health advice will evolve over time and you should check online to make sure you are working to the most recent version of this guidance.

This is version 11.4 of the guidance, published on 11 October 2021. This version reflects advice from the advisory sub group that visitors to the setting are permitted in a broader range of circumstances. (See changes to the sections on visits by parents and by specialist visitors.) This version also introduces new sections on short local excursions which promote outdoor learning and day visits.

Version 11.3 of the guidance was published on 24 September 2021. It updated the wording on testing for close contacts aged under 5 to use the same wording as used on the NHS Inform Test and Protect website.

Version 11.2 of the guidance was published on 17 September. Updates in that version:

  • note that at their meeting on 7 September, the Advisory Sub-group on Education and Children’s Issues recommended retaining the mitigations set out in this guidance until at least the October half term break
  • add a new section on identifying contacts that includes a definition of higher risk contacts
  • include new ‘Warn and Inform’ letters that should be issued to parent/carers and staff when a setting is informed of a positive case
  • provide a link to a flowchart that summarises what action to take when a child or member of staff tests positive
  • include at Annex A (of the PDF) , a list of local authority contacts that settings can use help access CO2 monitors

Version 11.1 of the guidance was published on 23 August. Updates in that version:

  • guidance in the section on visits by parents about what to do if a parent has been identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case but can end self-isolation on receipt of a negative PCR result
  • advice that peripatetic and agency staff should minimise, but are not are prohibited from, working across two premises if there is an outbreak in one of them
  • clarification that if there is an outbreak in a one of the settings where a child has a blended placement, it should, where possible, be postponed until after the outbreak
  • provide the latest information in the section on financial impact, particularly the publication of the Financial Sustainability Health Check

This non-statutory guidance has been developed for ELC providers in the local authority, private and third sectors to support the safe operation of these settings. This guidance provides the core measures that all providers must follow when delivering ELC.

Specific guidance has been published for school aged childcare (for children attending school) and childminding services (where children may be from a variety of age ranges). Users should ensure that they refer to the guidance that is appropriate both for their setting and for the age range of children in their care.

This guidance has been developed by the Scottish Government with input from key partners from the Education Recovery Group, including local authorities, trade unions, Care Inspectorate, Education Scotland and representatives of ELC providers, and in collaboration with Public Health Scotland. It has been informed by judgements based on the scientific and public health advice available at the time of writing.

This guidance is based on a set of principles for all services across Scotland that recognises that safeguarding the wider health and wellbeing of the child, and adults who work with them, must be central to delivering services. This guidance is based on ongoing evidence and advice provided by the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues.

The Sub-Group’s advice is that it is not appropriate for young children to maintain physical distancing, either practically or in terms of child development. Scientific advice shows that given the mitigations described in this guidance and the emerging evidence on transmission in young children, physical distancing is not recommended between children. In addition, it is not appropriate or possible to implement physical distancing between young children or between a young child and their key worker. This guidance puts in place age appropriate public health measures for ELC settings.

The core public health measures that underpin current operation of services to all children are:

  • enhanced hygiene and cleaning practices;
  • access to fresh air by maximising the use of outdoor spaces and effective ventilation
  • strict adherence to self-isolation for those who have symptoms, and to other Test and Protect measures for all
  • strict adherence to physical distancing between adults, including parents at drop-off and pick-up times
  • supportive use of face coverings

Aims of this guidance

This aims of this guidance are to:

  • provide clear expectations with regard to practical approaches to safe provision of ELC.

Where this guidance states that providers:

  • “must” do something, there is an expectation that it is done
  • “should” do something, this is strongly advised
  • “may” or “may wish” to do something, this is optional

Where this guidance refers to parents, this includes carers or family members who may be involved with children attending the setting.

This guidance is not exhaustive, and providers must continue to operate within the relevant legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure the health and wellbeing of staff and of children and parents while they are using their service. Measures put in place within the setting to comply with this guidance must not contravene health and safety legislation, for example, fire doors must not be left ajar to increase ventilation.

Nothing in this guidance affects the legal obligations of providers with regard to health and safety and public health advice. Providers must continue to adhere to all such duties when implementing this guidance. Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, they must have regard to any advice relating to coronavirus from the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.

This guidance should be read alongside:

First published: 11 Aug 2021 Last updated: 11 Oct 2021 -