Owner of Tullamore creche hit by Covid outbreak feels ‘vilified’

Childcare providers call for Government support on vaccine priority and antigen testing

The owner of a Co Offaly childcare service hit by a Covid-19 outbreak has said the Government needs to do more to support creches and other childcare providers through the pandemic.

Sharon Moyles said she felt “vilified” over the last 24 hours as news of the Covid-19 cases among staff and children at M&As [Music and Arts] Montessori in Tullamore Co Offaly, filtered out.

She told The Irish Times that eight staff members have tested positive for Covid-19 and there had been 15 cases among the children.

The majority of the children affected in the Tullamore case are understood to be asymptomatic and in good health with some displaying minor symptoms.


One staff member is quite ill, although not in hospital.

Ms Moyles said: “Our main concern is all our children, parents and staff are healthy”.

She also said the “bigger picture” is that childcare staff - which she argued are frontline workers - should be vaccinated and creches should get antigen tests.

“The Government need to be accountable. If they want us open then they need to protect us. That’s my message.”

Ms Moyles said her service had been reopened since the end of the first lockdown last summer and had no cases of Covid-19 until last week.

She said the first cases were reported to her on St Patrick’s Day and she contacted the HSE helpline straight away as part of the montessori’s Covid-19 response plan.

Ms Moyles said “we followed all of our policies and procedures” and she praised the HSE’s public health team for their response.

She stressed her childcare service had followed all the public health guidance since it reopened last June. This includes daily questions to staff on whether they are experiencing symptoms or have had a close contact, the wearing of facemasks by staff - or visors for a small number caring for children with special needs - and a pod system for the children.

There are designated play areas for the different pods, separate entrances for different groups and a “robust cleaning regime”.

In a statement, the HSE confirmed the outbreak, saying: “We acknowledge that this has been a stressful time for the management and the staff and appreciate the time and effort that they are devoting to assisting our public health investigation.”

It added the HSE had contacted all affected parents and staff to provide them with health advice.

Ms Moyles said she had felt “vilified” by people commenting on the situation online and even calling her anonymously.

She said she has had calls from private numbers “blaming me for Covid in Tullamore” despite transmission in the area being among the highest in the country in the weeks before the outbreak.

Ms Moyles said the parents whose children attend the montessori have been supportive but the Government “needs to stand up”.

She said an outbreak could hit any business adding that the “new variant is extremely contagious”.

She said: “I am an entrepreneur, a young women that’s employing 13 women and I also have amazing families and I need to look after their children.

“How are parents meant to go and work if they don’t have childcare?”

She suggested childcare workers should be prioritised for the vaccine and said “If we had antigen testing as well it would really help.”

“The Government needs to listen to the childcare sector. If they want us to be open for frontline- essential parents, then they’ve got to protect us.”

Ms Moyles said: “I’m in a very stressful situation where I have done everything to protect my team and my children in the service and this is my livelihood.”

The montessori is closed at present and will be awaiting the results of close contact tracing before deciding when to reopen.

Ms Moyles’ call for childcare workers to be moved up the priority list for vaccination was supported by the Federation of Early Childhood Providers (FECP).

Recent outbreaks

Federation spokeswoman Elaine Dunne said she was aware of a number of recent outbreaks in childcare facilities and it is a “matter of time” before more occur.

In a statement referencing the Tullamore case, the federation said: “Despite following all guidance in relation to mask wearing, hand hygiene, containing children within pods, and limiting access to parents and others, the virus has spread rapidly in this childcare facility in the county currently with the highest national incidence of the virus.”

Ms Dunne added: “Staff and the provider [in the Tullamore Montessori] did everything they were supposed to; nobody changed pods or crossed over and that’s the scary thing.

“It’s worrying that they are in this position and it’s only a matter of time before there are more.”

According to the federation, many crèches and childcare facilities are back to about 90 per cent occupancy and workers are worried about the spread of new variants.

This is particularly the case, it notes, because of the difficulties in controlling virus spread around small children who cannot readily adhere to public health guidance such as social distancing.

“Vulnerable people work in the childcare sector, including pregnant women and some with underlying health conditions, or they live with a family member that has underlying issues. They need to be protected while providing an essential service,” it said. The federation estimated that its members would not be vaccinated under the current strategy until about mid-summer.

Ms Dunne said a growing number of childcare providers were now using antigen testing of their own with weekly supplies of 27 individual tests available to its members for €187.

Data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) shows that childcare facilities are not major areas of concern when it comes to virus transmission.

In the week ending March 13th, eight outbreaks from a total of 339 were associated with childcare facilities, or just over 2 per cent. And while closed for much of the time, such settings are not even mentioned in the breakdown of total outbreaks (4,384) recorded since the beginning of the third wave last November.

However, for many in the Co Offaly town, the creche outbreak is an extension of local concerns over high case numbers - last Friday, latest health data named Tullamore as having the highest incidence rate in the country at 484 cases per 100,000 people.

The midlands town, which has a population of 29,159 people, recorded 141 new cases in preceding two weeks.

Fianna Fáil TD for Laois-Offaly Barry Cowen is seeking a greater level of data and said he has raised the issue with HSE chief executive Paul Reid.

“Local councillors are anxious and keen to help and address the increase in whatever way possible. They are contemplating holding a special meeting to appeal to the public,” he said in a statement on Monday.

“Relevant stats and info relating to ongoing high numbers of daily cases in Offaly [should be made available]. It may be helpful to share such information concerning details of clusters and the contributing factors.”

Local councillor Tony McCormack said the weekend numbers were of concern again and appealed to people to reduce personal contacts.

“The last thing we want is to be left behind when the rest of the country is reopened,” he said. “We don’t know [where it is coming from]. We’re getting messages from the HSE and they are saying there is no particular cluster as such; that it’s spreading across the country.”

Fellow councillor Declan Harvey expressed similar local concerns that Offaly could find itself trapped in lockdown if the situation did not calm.

“Where this is coming out of nobody seems to know,” he said, adding that both the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and the Health Service Executive (HSE) have been asked for answers. “I am terrified that it will hold up everything for the reopening.”

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times