ONE in six nurseries and childminders fear they could close by Christmas if their income does not rise, according to a survey.

More than a quarter of early years settings in the most deprived local authorities could be forced to shut permanently over the winter due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the report said.

A sustained fall in demand for places, combined with not enough Government support, could lead to mass childcare closures in England, the Early Years Alliance (EYA) warned.

A survey of more than 2,000 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in October found that 17 per cent of settings did not believe they will remain viable over the next three months if they have the same income.

And 51 per cent said they would need emergency funding to stay open over the next six months – and only a quarter expected to make any profit between now and March.

Almost two-thirds said the Government has not provided enough support for the early years sector during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The EYA is calling for a £240 million emergency Early Years Sufficiency Fund targeted at providers at risk of closure to ensure there are enough places for families across the country.

On average, early years providers have seen a 21 per cent fall in occupancy levels compared with this time last year – despite being allowed to open to more children since June.

Figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) suggest around 770,000 children are attending early years childcare settings – around 59 per cent of the number who usually attend in term time.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the EYA, said: “With demand for places still significantly below what would typically be expected, and no sign of things returning to normal any time soon, many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are reaching the point of no return.

“Worse still, our survey shows that it is those early years settings providing vital care and education to families in the most deprived areas – who are already bearing the brunt of the impact of the pandemic – that are most at risk.

“There is absolutely no excuse for the Government’s continued indifference towards the early years sector. It claims that children’s access to education during the pandemic is a top priority, and yet it is apparently perfectly happy to see thousands of early education providers fall by the wayside.”

A Department for Eeducation spokesperson said: “Nurseries, preschools and childminders have received significant financial support over the past months and will benefit from a planned £3.6 billion funding package in 2020-21 for free early education and childcare places.

“We are providing extra stability and reassurance to settings that are open by ‘block-buying’ childcare places for the rest of this year at the level we would have funded before coronavirus – regardless of how many children are attending.”