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
Limiting contact

Limiting contact

Limiting children's contacts

Now that we have moved to protection levels, the Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues have recommended that the size of cohorts can vary according to the protection level in which the setting is located.

Although the size of the group can vary with protection level, at all levels, consistency of groups is important, and children should remain within the same groups wherever possible.

In protection level 0 and below, there is no requirement to separate groups when they are outdoors. Settings should make as much use of outdoor space as possible as the risk of transmission is lower outside than it is in indoors. Groups can be mixed when outdoors where that makes it easier to maximise the time children spend outdoors.

The appropriate size of groups will depend not only on protection level but also on the age and overall number of children, and the layout of the setting. The general approach should be to minimise the size of groups where possible. Large indoor groupings should be avoided.

Table 3: cohorting of children

Level 0 and below

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4/Stay local

The only restriction on group size is registration capacity.



To limit interactions children should be managed in consistent groups with a maximum size of 56.

To limit interactions children should be managed in consistent groups with a maximum size of 48.

To limit interactions children should be managed in smaller groups, at most equivalent to those in primary school classes – e.g. max 33.



Children should remain within the same groups wherever possible and should not mix freely with children in other groups. To avoid confusing children, this should apply when children are outdoors as well as indoors.

When settings are making decisions about exact cohort size (within the maximum specified above), they should consider the impact on the number staff required to self-isolate when one or more person in the group tests positive.

Group sizes and the associaed transmission risks should be reflected in the setting’s risk assessment. This includes in Level 0 and below where settings should demonstrate that they have considered the risks if they decide not to retain restrictions on group size.

Lead in time for adapting to change in protection levels: as soon as possible but no more than 7 days.

  • while the size of cohorts can vary according to protection level, the adult to child ratios in the Care Inspectorate Guidance must continue to apply. It is also worth noting that having larger group sizes will mean that more staff and children would be required to self-isolate in the event of anyone in the group testing positive. As well as reducing the risk of transmission, there will therefore be wider benefits of supporting children in smaller groups
  • the physical capacity of the setting may be affected by physical distancing requirements. Providers should review the layout of settings and consider how many children can be accommodated safely at any one time while meeting these requirements. This may be below the normal Care Inspectorate registered capacity of the setting based on current floor space requirements
  • children are not required to physically distance from each other, or from adults. It is important for children to feel secure and receive warmth and physical contact that is appropriate to their needs, in particular when they are receiving personal care, need comforting or reassurance. Keyworkers will need to be close to the children, particularly young children and should feel confident to do so
  • staff members should work with the same groups wherever possible. Limiting the number of children, and the number of groups that a staff member is in contact with is important. Where cover is required for breaks, toileting etc., this should be managed within the staff working with a particular group. If staff are, through necessity, to work with other groups, this should be for limited periods, with appropriate risk mitigation measures adopted. Staff should ensure strict hygiene practices are carried out if they are caring for different groups. Adults should seek to maintain the appropriate physical distance from other adults at all times (see Physical distancing between adults section). Adults (except those who are medically exempt) must wear face coverings whenever it is not possible to maintain the appropriate physical distance
  • the minimum space standards for ELC settings should be in line with the early learning, childcare and out of school care services: design guidance. In addition to this, consideration should be given to what additional space may be required to manage children and staff’s contacts. A flexible approach to the use of all existing spaces within the setting should be considered
  • consideration should be given to the removal of unnecessary items in the setting to maximise capacity and decrease the number of items requiring cleaning, while ensuring the children still have adequate resources and furnishings to support quality experiences
  • sharing of resources should be minimised. Where resources are used by different groups (e.g. on a rotational basis), cleaning between uses in accordance with requirements in section 4.12 must be undertaken

Limiting staff contact with each other

Just as reducing the number of interactions that children and staff have is a key part of reducing risk in settings, so too is reducing the number of interactions that staff have with each other.

When agreeing staff working patterns, settings are encouraged to maintain as much consistency as possible in the staff who work in close proximity, especially in areas where physical distancing is more challenging. While this may not always be possible, having the same groups of staff working together consistently across each week will reduce the risk of transmission among staff. It will also help to limit the number of staff who might need to self-isolate through Test and Protect.

First published: 11 Aug 2021 Last updated: 30 Nov 2021 -