Publication - Advice and guidance

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

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

41 page PDF

522.9 kB

41 page PDF

522.9 kB

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

41 page PDF

522.9 kB



We know there are challenges in delivering services in the evolving COVID-19 situation in Scotland, including early learning and childcare.  In line with Realising the Ambition, our focus must be on supporting children when they are in settings, 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 early learning and childcare. 

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 reopening and delivering ELC services.

Although the prevalence of coronavirus in Scotland continues to evolve, we now know that young children are less likely to be affected by or transmit the virus. Advice from the Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues states:

  • children in the age groups accessing early learning and childcare [N.B. 0-5 year olds] have a low susceptibility to COVID-19 infection, they also have a low likelihood of onward transmission

Therefore, subject to surveillance and mitigations being in place, we are able to continue to deliver ELC with some restrictions in place. However, we cannot yet return to normal ELC practice – we all need to ensure that we continue to manage services and mitigate risks.

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 on which you can use your professional judgement to make a decision.   

If the circumstances of the virus 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 may evolve over time and you should check online to make sure you are working to the most recent version of this guidance. 


This guidance 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 and crèches. This guidance also applies to fully outdoor services for children aged 5 and under, and replaces the stand-alone guidance for fully outdoor services that was published in August 2020. This guidance supersedes the guidance issued on 30 July 2020, and all other previous guidance.

The key updates to the guidance in this publication are:

  • the guidance aligns with the strategic framework and the approach that should be taken by the sector at each level
  • face coverings should now be worn by all adults when physical distancing is not possible, but not when interacting with children
  • specific guidance on singing in ELC settings; children sing in the course of activities and play, and should not be discouraged from doing so
  • advice on the number of children in a group setting has been brought in line with primary class size numbers increasing to a maximum of 33 children.  This does not change staffing requirements or ratios
  • the approaches to shielding, support for specific groups, test and protect and outbreak management have been updated to align with most up to date public health advice and approaches across educationg
  • guidance on ventilation and temperature control
  • peripatetic staffing and movement of staff between settings should be kept to a minimum and for essential purposes only

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

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 Health Protection 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 health and wellbeing of the child, and adults who work with them, must be central to delivering services. This guidance is based on evidence and advice provided by the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues, published in July 2020. The Sub-Group has since reviewed this advice in light of the changed position on infection and transmission rates, the evidence and experience of settings re-opening between August and October 2020, and recent scientific evidence. Following that review, the Sub-Group has concluded that its previous advice on physical distancing in settings should be maintained, and the need for compliance should be strongly reinforced. 

See: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues - advice on face coverings, physical distancing and related matters

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 reopening of services are:

  • enhanced hygiene and cleaning practice
  • active engagement with Test and Protect
  • physical distancing between adults in the setting including parents at drop-off and pick-up times
  • maximizing the use of outdoor spaces
  • limiting children’s contacts


The aims of this guidance are to:

  • provide clarity of expectation with regard to practical approaches to safe provision  of ELC
  • to provide key principles for consideration. This guidance is not intended to promote a checklist approach. Providers should exercise their judgement to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff, children and families is paramount, taking account of local circumstances

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 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:

COVID-19 guidance

Managers and staff in the setting must make themselves familiar with COVID-19 advice available from HPS before the service reopens and regularly review once their setting is operational. It is important that the most up-to-date guidance is used, and that managers and staff are knowledgeable about current guidance. Always access guidance online wherever possible and check regularly for any updated advice.

Update service status – services closed as a result of lockdown

Prior to recommencing their service, the manager must contact the Care Inspectorate to advise them of their updated operational status. 

To do this they must complete a “Changes to Service Delivery due to Coronavirus (COVID-19)” notification. This is a new notification that services must use to inform the Care Inspectorate about operational changes that are specifically related to COVID-19. This is only available through eForms. If you do not update your status, the Care Inspectorate will consider your service closed.

First published: 30 Oct 2020 Last updated: 23 Dec 2020 -