The ever shifting (and different) rules put in place by the English and French governments to limit the transmission of COVID-19 have had a significant impact on the lives of separated or divorced families. These rules need to be understood and complied with, but can complicate adherence to childcare arrangements already in place. Complex rules and anxiety relating to the pandemic risk exacerbating any existing tensions within a separated or divorced family.
What kind of childcare support are single parents living in England allowed to rely on?
If you are a single parent living with children who were under 18 on 12 June 2020 you can create a "support bubble" with one other household of any size, other than the one that includes your child’s other parent. From 14 September 2020, if you form or are already in a support bubble, you cannot then change your support bubble.
In addition, you can receive childcare support in your home from registered childcare providers, including nannies and you can form a "childcare bubble" with another household for the purposes of receiving informal (unpaid and unregistered) childcare to a child aged 13 or under.
If your child ordinarily lives between their parents' households and you and your child’s other parent are in separate bubbles, the child can continue to move between households as they usually would.
However, members of both bubbles should self-isolate if someone within one of the bubbles develops COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive.
Obviously, the more "bubbles" involved, the higher the risk of transmission of the virus and / or a requirement to self-isolate. The need for support and childcare, particularly for parents whose extended families are abroad, should be weighed up against the risks associated with social contact.
Can parents and their children travel to France?
Whilst the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office currently advises British nationals against all but essential international travel, there are currently no restrictions to travelling to France from the UK. Obviously, anyone residing in or visiting France must comply with any restrictions in place at the time.
What happens if parents and / or children develop symptoms when in France?
They should be tested as soon as possible. This can be done through a prescription from a doctor, through the French track and trace programme or at a walk-in centre. Whilst in England you have to self-isolate for 14 days in the case of a positive test result, in France you have to self-isolate for at least seven days from the first symptoms, and at the earliest 48 hours after the fever has gone.
What happens when parents (and their children) return to England?
A 14-day quarantine applies to all passengers arriving to England from France. This measure is compulsory and likely to be subject to checks. Anyone in breach of the measure is liable to fines ranging from £1,000 to £3,200.
What happens to shared childcare arrangements when children and the parent they have travelled with are quarantining in England upon their return from France or a parent who has travelled without the children has to quarantine upon return?
A case recently heard in the Family Court highlighted the difference between England's COVID-19 regulations that permit children to move between their parents' homes generally whilst the current restrictions are in place and the position where children and / or a parent is quarantining after visiting a (non-travel corridor) foreign country.
The Court's paramount concern is the welfare of the children and specifically in relation to COVID-19, protecting children from the risk of infection. The Judge concluded that a child who is required to quarantine can, if subject to a 'shared custody agreement' leave the place where they are required to self-isolate to spend time with the other parent. However, there is no explicit exemption that permits a child who is not required to quarantine to visit a parent who is in quarantine having returned from a country not in a travel corridor, such as France.
What happens to childcare arrangements when children or parents are having to self-isolate in England as a result of any of the following: displaying COVID-19 symptoms, a positive COVID-19 test result, someone within a support bubble having symptoms or having tested positive for COVID-19, an instruction to self-isolate from NHS Test and Trace or the NHS COVID-19 app or an instruction to self-isolate from your children's school or a parent's employer?
Under current legislation, if a parent is notified (other than via the NHS smartphone app) that their child has to self-isolate for 14 days, the child is not permitted to visit a parent with whom the child does not usually live during the period of isolation.
The issue of whether a child can visit a parent who is self-isolating has not yet been decided in the Family Court. Based on the approach of the Family Court in the case mentioned above in relation to quarantine, it is unlikely that the Court would permit a child to visit a parent who is self-isolating as it puts the child at risk of being infected.
How should parents generally approach child arrangements during the pandemic?
The aim should be to maintain the routine set out in childcare arrangements already in place, whether that be an informal agreement or a Court order, as long as those arrangement comply with the government guidelines in place.
Parents ought to have a pragmatic and common sense approach to any extra days children have with one parent as a result of complying with rules relating to self-isolation or quarantine.
Parents should seek, insofar as is possible, to keep themselves up-to-date with the rules and restrictions that apply to them (in whichever countries they are living or travelling to) and be prepared to adapt arrangements accordingly, whilst keeping disruption to children's lives to a minimum.
It is beneficial for children if parents are consistent with their approach to COVID-19, particularly in relation to complying with government guidance relating to social distancing and recommendations with regards to hygiene.
Where one parent is self-isolating and children are unable to spend time with that parent, the other parents may consider facilitating contact and communication via video calls. Although it is preferable to make up any missed time, parents shouldn't become overly fixated on calculating numbers of days or hours.
What if parents can't agree how to adapt shared childcare arrangements to changing circumstances caused by the pandemic?
If agreement cannot be reached, parents may require a mediator or another third party to assist with agreeing a suitable and fair arrangement. As a last resort, parents may need to make a court application. The family courts are open, albeit most hearings are being held remotely.