COUNCILS will no longer be legally obliged to deliver the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide 1,140 hours of childcare form the summer - amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scottish ministers have laid an order in Holyrood to revoke the legal duty for local authorities - allowing councils to focus resources on responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the pandemic “makes it impossible for some local authorities to meet that target by August”.

She added: “More than 50,000 children were already benefitting from that expansion.

“We remain committed to make sure that this expansion happens as soon as possible.”

Last month, Audit Scotland warned that many local authorities would struggle to roll out the expansion by the August deadline.

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Scottish Conservatives have labelled the news “extremely disappointing but not unexpected”.

Jamie Greene, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary said: “This is extremely disappointing but not entirely unexpected news - prior to the Covid-19 outbreak Audit Scotland had warned that the Scottish Government would struggle to meet this deadline.

“Parliament reaffirmed these concerns in a cross party debate which forced the government to concede that August 2020 was always going to be difficult due to slow progress, long before the current crisis outbreak.”

He added: “Of course we should focus on the immediate task in hand of supporting key workers with childcare during this critical period, but the Scottish government must do what it can to support the very survival of the childcare and nursery sector in the long term.

“Whilst we are all currently dealing with the immediate threat of this virus, as soon as practical, the Scottish Government must make good on their original promise of 1140 hours of free childcare which many parents will desperately be relying on in future.”

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Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson Iain Gray, said the announcement would “add further stress and worry to patents who are already facing significant childcare issues” due to the pandemic.

He added: “Even before Covid-19, there were real concerns that this policy would not be delivered on time. That is now inevitable, and it is right that local authorities are allowed to focus on dealing with the current crisis.

“We don’t yet know how long the current isolation measures will stay in place, but if this crisis has been contained by August, parents will face further uncertainty over their childcare options.

“When things do begin to return to normal, we will have to see a huge effort from the Scottish Government to make sure funded childcare will be deliverable as close to the original timeframe as possible.”

In a joint statement, Minister for Children and Young People Maree Todd and COSLA spokesperson for Children and Young People Councillor Stephen McCabe, said: “Our commitment to delivering the expansion, and to making sure our children have access to the best support and opportunities for development in their early years, remains undimmed and our partnership working will continue with that aim.

“However, in these exceptional circumstances it is not realistic or reasonable to expect that local authorities can deliver their original expansion plans to secure high quality experience for all children in time for August this year.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible to continue with the planned recruitment and infrastructure projects required to support expansion. As we focus on saving lives and looking after people most vulnerable to the virus the immediate priority is to ensure that we have the emergency childcare in place to support families during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

It added: “To support local government with this critical response work, the Scottish Government has now moved to suspend the statutory duty on local authorities to provide 1140 hours of early learning and childcare from this August.

“Tens of thousands of children have already benefited from expanded hours, and we expect this will continue when normal provision resumes. Once there is a clearer picture of the impact and duration of the pandemic response measures, we will work together to agree the right time to reinstate the statutory requirement and ensure that all eligible children can access 1140 hours of high quality early learning and childcare.”