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.

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



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 reopening and delivering ELC services.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues reviewed the evidence on transmission and infection in Scotland, as well the impact of the new variants of the Coronavirus, at its meetings on 26 January and on 1 February. At both meetings the sub-group reviewed evidence on: the state of the epidemic in Scotland; transmission among young children and in ELC settings; and the wider impacts of the current restrictions on children and families. The sub-group advice is that, subject to a continued decrease in the levels of community transmission and in the prevalence of the virus, ELC could reopen in full from 22 February.

Evidence continues to confirm that younger children are at lower risk of transmission and 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. The decision to prioritise the return to ELC also reflects the crucial role that ELC plays in supporting children’s development, and the challenge of delivering this crucial support remotely. While we continue to make progress in suppressing the virus, we must recognise that returning to previously low levels will likely take some more weeks. ELC settings must therefore place very high priority on reinforcing the mitigations set out in this guidance.

Following the First Minister’s announcement that ELC settings can re-open to all children from 22 February, the advisory sub-group met again on 9 February to consider whether any of the risk mitigations set out in previous versions of this guidance should be strengthened.  The sub-group’s advice was that there is no  need adjust the key mitigations, including physical distancing and the use of face coverings, but that there should be greater support for implementation and understanding among staff, parents and providers of what is required. This guidance has therefore been updated to further clarify expectations. ELC settings should place the highest priority on reviewing risk assessments and ensuring that all appropriate mitigations are in place and implemented. To help ensure a safe return to ELC, every possible step should be taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and staff.

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. We 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 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.

This is version 7 of this guidance document, published on 9 April 2021. Updates in version 7 are as follows:

  • link to accompanying answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) (later in this introductory section)
  • an update on the strategic framework
  • link to a staff training resource in the section on supporting the workforce to be confident and safe
  • guidance on working for household members of people on the shielding list in the section on shielding and clinically at risk
  • guidance on disinfecting using fog, mist and other systems in the section on cleaning practices
  • a note that all contacts are now being asked to take a COVID test in the section on staying vigilant and responding to COVID-19 symptoms
There were more substantial changes in version 6 published on 16 February. Those changes are also signposted below but  providers are encouraged to read the guidance in full:
  • changes to the introduction to reflect the advice from the Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues on re-opening ELC to all children
  • an emphasis on the need for clearly defined training sessions for staff on the risk mitigations set out in this guidance and being implemented in the setting (see workforce support).
  • new section on the introduction of routine asymptomatic testing for ELC staff (see workforce support). Further updated on 5 March 2021.
  • a requirement that inductions for new staff must include guidance on the setting’s infection prevention and control measures (see communication).
  • further guidance on risk assessments and a requirement that these be reviewed regularly and in the context of the re-opening of ELC to all children (see guidance and risk assessment)
  • further clarity on working from home 
  • added emphasis that all COVID-19 guidance, including the advice on shielding applies even in the context of the vaccine (see support for specific groups)
  • An up-date on the advice on attending ELC that has been provide to children who are shielding (see support for specific groups)
  • Reference to the UK Government Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for pregnant employees (see support for specific groups)
  • Where to find advice on detergents/cleaning products (see infection prevention and control)
  • reminder that internal fire doors should never be held open to promote ventilation (unless assessed and provided with appropriate hold open and self-closing mechanisms which respond to the actuation of the fire alarm system) (see infection prevention and control)
  • reminder that risk assessments should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to take account of changing circumstances, including seasonal changes in relation to ventilation and heating/warm (see infection prevention and control)
  • extensive revision to the section on outbreak and case management (see staying vigilant)
  • further clarity on self-isolation requirements (see staying vigilant)
  • up-date to section on student placements to explain how challenges are being considered (see staying vigilant)
  • new section to encourage settings to maintain as much consistency as possible in the staff who work in close proximity when planning working patterns (see limiting contact)
  • reminder that the requirement to physically distance applies during breaks and outside of the work environment, including traveling to and from the service as well as while staff are on duty (see physical distancing between adults)
  • further reinforcement of the guidance on the use of face coverings to reduce the risk of adult to adult transmission (see face coverings)
  • further reminders that staff who wish to wear face coverings when working closely with children should be supported to do this (see face coverings)
  • feminder that parents/carers and older children and young people should be discouraged from gathering outside the setting (see drop-off and pick up)
  • new section to make clear that visits to the setting should be avoided unless necessary (see visitors to the setting)
  • advice that signage may be used to remind staff to wear a face covering when passing through areas where it is not possible to maintain a 2m distance to reduce transmission risk (see moving within and between settings)
  • clarity that staff must not work across two premises if there is an outbreak in one of these and that settings should pay very close attention to any evidence suggesting bridges of transmission between settings and consult immediately with local public health teams (see moving within and between settings)
  • guidance that the use of blended placements be reviewed on a case-by-case basis (see blended placements).
  • update to the section on financial impact (see financial impact)

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 reopening of services to all children are:

  • enhanced hygiene and cleaning practices
  • limiting children’s contacts by managing cohort sizes
  • maximising the use of outdoor spaces and access to fresh air
  • strict adherence to self-isolation for those who have symptoms, and to other Test and Protect measures for all
  • strict adherence to 2 metre physical distancing between adults, including parents at drop-off and pick-up times
  • supportive use of face coverings


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:

We have also developed some answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs).

First published: 5 Mar 2021 Last updated: 9 Apr 2021 -