Childcare in Ireland may operate using a "pod" system as it reopens, with small groups of children being looked after by the same carers in the same room, using the same toys every time they are there.
Speaking in the Dáil today, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said children "will play together and will be encouraged to stay together in this little pod. They will be encouraged to use outdoor space as much as possible".
Regular hand-washing will be the norm at creche and pre-school, she said. She added that the under sixes would struggle with the concept of social distancing and make implementation difficult if not impossible.
“Not providing childcare is a huge risk,” she said, and the Department “will be referring to the Norwegian model, among others, and how this might apply to Ireland”.
She said her department was examining the number of children that could be cared for by a single practitioner. At the moment, child/carer ratios are strictly governed by regulations.
Ms Zappone said a number of options were being examined to limit interaction between parents and guardians, including children being collected from the cars of parents and guardians outside creches.
Extended or staggered opening hours are also under consideration.
The wearing of facemasks for the under-6s was unlikely to contribute to infection control she said, and the wearing could involve a degree of coercion. The wearing of facemasks by adults may also not be practical, although this was being further examined, she said.
The Minister added there was no way of reopening childcare without risks, but that the emphasis would be on minimising risk.
“With public health input, we are working to develop the safest and most pragmatic way to deliver this vital service.”
“We will minimise the risk. There will be an incident of transmission but we can manage this - not prevent it,” she said. While she said the transmission and prevalence of Covid-19 was probably no worse, and likely less risky, among children than adults, she also flagged the recent emergence of an extreme immune system reaction in children that may be associated with Covid-19, Paediatric Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (PIMS).
During questions in the Dáil, Ms Zappone told Fianna Fáil spokeswoman on children Anne Rabbitte her department did not decide who was an essential worker for the purposes of an early lifting of closures .
Ms Rabbitte referred to phase three of the re-opening plan for Ireland at the end of June, which provided for childcare for the children of essential workers.
“What is an essential worker?” she asked.
Ms Zappone told her “it’s not our department that makes the list. It is the Department of Health, the HSE. I can list those for you as soon as I get that information.”
Ms Rabbitte said “workers want to know are they deemed essential or not”.
She added: “When phase four comes along are you telling parents that they can only have childcare provision one day out of five.
The Minister said “we are following the public health advice and the public health advice that we go in terms of this first effort was that we had to go into the homes”.
Pressed on the issue of insurance, Ms Zappone said she was “back and forth” many times with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) on State indemnity and “effectively DPER said no”.
But she said “we do have the insurance cover now for the centre-based scheme in relation to Covid-related claims and that’s a major breakthrough”.
Independent TD Marian Harkin asked if the “pod” model would reduce the number of children that could be cared for.
Ms Zappone said it was a “phased reopening and we are in a pandemic so for both of those reasons there will be a reduction in the numbers” initially. She added that they were not fully aware if there would be the same demand as before the pandemic and there would be a survey of parents and of providers to get some evidence to help with decisions.
Asked by Labour spokesman Sean Sherlock to give a “cast-iron guarantee” that the phased re-opening of childcare would go ahead at the end of June, Ms Zappone said that “on the basis of the planning we are currently engaged in, I hope we will be open at the time specified”.