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, current evidence suggests that younger children remain at lower risk of clinical disease from COVID-19 than 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.

However, as the First Minister has said, we currently face a renewed and severe challenge resulting from the emergence of the new Omicron variant, which is more transmissible and spreads faster than previous variants. ELC settings must therefore place very high priority on reinforcing all of mitigations set out in this guidance, and ensuring all staff are aware of their own responsibilities in applying it. This is particularly important in relation to any areas of the guidance which have changed (see below). Given the evidence of risk, the First Minister’s statement on 10 December also highlighted the importance of minimising unnecessary contacts, especially in crowded places, and to consider deferring events such as staff parties. This is aligned with recent Public Health Scotland (PHS) advice

Within the context of the Omicron variant, the Advisory sub-group on Education and Children’s Issues and senior clinicians have provided advice on the changes in this guidance based upon the latest clinical and public health assessment of the situation, and a four harms assessment. Following that advice, ministers decided that strengthening mitigations at this stage is important and necessary as part of a society-wide drive to minimise transmission.

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.

Version 16 of the guidance published on 17 February 2022 allows primary school teachers and senior school staff to visit ELC settings as part of the transitioning process. Considerations for school visits by children and young people entering P1 or S1 should be risk assessed and built into the relevant decisions when undertaking transition planning.

Version 15 of the guidance was published on 6 January 2022. This version included:

  • a revised approach to self-isolation for high risk contacts from 6 January 2022 taking account of the latest advice and progress with the booster programme
  • the addition of a new section on vaccination
  • update to the self-isolation exemption for public services as this only applies to those people who were isolating before 6 January 2022, given the changes to the self-isolation policy
  • the section on testing has been revised to reflect the latest advice
  • an addition to the section on cleaning practices covering sand

Version 14 of the guidance was published on 23 December 2021. It contained a new section on the self-isolation exemption for essential public services.

Version 13 of this guidance was published on 17 December 2021. In light of the Omicron variant settings are encouraged to apply this guidance as soon as it is feasible to do so.  This version reflects changes to the wording of previous guidance to reinforce:

  • actions to minimise child to child and staff to staff contact through the use of groupings in indoor spaces, wherever that is possible. The general approach should be to minimise the size of groups as far as possible and limit movement between groups unless that is absolutely necessary. Managers or Head Teachers are best placed to judge how these should be applied within their settings
  • visits to settings by parents: ‘virtual’ visits should be the norm for meetings with parents. However, where it may be in the best interests of children for a parent or carer to attend in person, this should be considered on a case by case basis
  • visits to settings by specialist staff: visits for specialist staff will continue to be allowed but staff should follow the guidance on testing and ensure that they follow all the infection prevention and control measures set out in this guidance
  • movement of staff across settings. Peripatetic or agency staff can still be used but staff and managers are strongly encouraged to minimise working across settings wherever possible, particularly if there is an outbreak in one

In addition, we updated the following sections to reflect the latest advice:

  • latest advice for those on the highest risk list
  • ventilation: the section has been reviewed and is aligned to that in the COVID-19 guidance for schools. Local authorities should re-assess their current arrangements to ensure they have enough devices to allow every learning, teaching and play space to be assessed for a minimum of one full day per week under normal occupancy
  • setting out the new position on self isolation (as of 10 December) whereby children of all ages will be required to self-isolate if they are a household contact of a positive case
  • updated guidance on day visits to encourage settings to exercise caution about arranging visits at this time
  • updated text on asymptomatic testing, specifically the processes to be followed when distributing test kits
  • minor updates across the annexesin supporting documents to bring material up to date

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

The 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: 17 Feb 2022 -