Coronavirus: Report warns over ‘financial sustainability’ of childcare sector

Confidential document prepared as frontline workers scheme is scrapped

The closure of creches, as part of one of the first raft of measures introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19, affected more than 200,000 children and their parents. Photograph: Frank Perry/AFP/GettyImages

The closure of creches, as part of one of the first raft of measures introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19, affected more than 200,000 children and their parents. Photograph: Frank Perry/AFP/GettyImages

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The childcare sector is facing significant financial, logistical and public health challenges associated with reopening in the coming months, according to a confidential Department of Children and Youth Affairs document.

It comes as Minister Katherine Zappone cancelled a scheme designed to give healthcare workers childcare in the home, after just six providers applied to join the programme.

“It has become clear that the low uptake is unlikely to change,” the department said.

“While the home-based approach met public health requirements, the provision of this type of model raised other difficulties, and the sector were concerned generally about potential health impacts amidst continued strict social distancing rules.”

A document, prepared in the department, which has been seen by The Irish Times, says many businesses could be threatened due to public health considerations limiting their capacity to earn income, while parents are unable to cover costs associated with higher fees.

Concerns have also been raised around poor working conditions in the sector and the impact of illness and self-isolation associated with Covid-19, with a risk that there may not be sufficient numbers of qualified professionals in the sector as restrictions are lifted.

This is despite Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying on Wednesday that reopening childcare facilities is “among the safest things that we can do over the next couple of months”.

The warnings are contained in draft terms of reference prepared for a group examining the phased reopening of the sector, which met for the first time on Wednesday.

It flags concerns around “maintaining social distancing among young children and those caring for them”, as well as meeting parental demand for childcare from families as the economy reopens, “all the while restricting capacity and thereby reducing adult-child ratios”.

On financial risk, the document identifies “financial sustainability of the sector when capacity restrictions limit income and parents cannot afford to cover any higher costs with higher fees”. There are also concerns around ensuring there are sufficient staff in the sector “given ongoing likelihood of sickness and self isolation, reduced adult-child ratios, low wages and poor working conditions”.

Healthcare scheme

The failure of the long-planned healthcare scheme to get off the ground was blamed on insurance and other issues. “While the home based approach met public health requirements, the provision of this type of model raised other difficulties,” the department said.

Despite the failure of the scheme and challenges to the sector, operators are considering ideas from elsewhere in Europe to aid reopening, include the concept of “bubbling”, where children from the same set of families are educated together in the same group, or “bubble” every day, therefore minimising the risk of widespread infection throughout a creche if one of them falls ill with Covid-19. An increased use of outdoor facilities is also possible.

Operators in the sector who have sufficient physical space are also looking at how that could be subdivided further. However, some believe regulations may have to be changed in order to permit new arrangements.

The closure of creches, as part of one of the first raft of measures introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19, affected more than 200,000 children and their parents. The reopening of the sector is seen as key to facilitating the return to work for many parents, as well as securing the future of 31,000 workers and thousands of businesses in the sector.

Under the reopening road map, special childcare arrangements for healthcare workers will begin on May 18th. On June 29th, creches are due to open in a phased manner for children of essential workers. On July 20th, they are due to open for children of all other workers “on a gradually phased basis”.

Mounting concerns

Sources in the childcare sector said there are mounting concerns about the future viability of many businesses, as well as how they can realistically handle going back to work while maintaining public health standards.

Under a special Covid-19 scheme, the vast majority of wages in the sector are currently being paid by the State, over and above the level granted in the general income support scheme, thanks to top-ups provided by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

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