Childcare providers seek clarity on plans to reopen; Department 'developing and costing proposals'

Childcare providers and operators have expressed concern about how services will operate under Covid-19 restrictions, after a proposed scheme was scrapped this week due to concerns around insurance cover, infection risk, and other issues.

The scrapping of a State-backed childcare scheme for frontline staff on Wednesday has prompted calls for the Government to clarify how crèches and childcare facilities can reopen at the end of June.

Early Childhood Ireland, which represents almost 4,000 members, said the decision to scrap the scheme is “disappointing” but that it was “unworkable” because of health and safety issues and a lack of indemnity by the State.

The organisation said these concerns need to be addressed before services can reopen as scheduled on Jun 29, under the Government's Covid-19 exit strategy.

ECI director of policy and advocacy, Frances Byrne, said clarity is needed on how facilities will operate within social distancing guidelines and if staff-to-children ratios change.

“Members are telling us that they are keen to reopen. They want to find solutions to the new challenges we are facing. The reality has dawned on all of us, and not just crèche operators, that we’re in a new world and we don’t know how long that’s going to last,” she told RTE radio’s Today programme.

Ms Byrne said clarity is needed on the number of children accommodated in facilities, which would impact on staffing levels. If numbers in childcare facilities are limited it would have a “dreadful knock-on effects” on staff retention and longer-term impacts, she said.

Another group representing independent childcare providers pointed out that solutions to safely re-open childcare services are needed for “all workers” as the country moves towards reopening the economy.

Seas Suas said the next phase of the Government’s roadmap is “fast approaching” and all stakeholders need to focus on “safely and sustainably” reopening services.

“Without safe and sustainable childcare services in place, parents will face challenges in returning to work in all sectors. We need to avoid a situation where parents would not be in a position to return to work as they have no childcare,” a Seas Suas spokesperson said.

On Wednesday, Children’s Minister, Katherine Zappone, said her department will develop solutions to support the reopening of the childcare sector as planned in June.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also signalled this week that schools and childcare facilities could open sooner than planned after the Health and Information Quality Authority issued a report suggesting children are not as affected by Covid-19 and do not substantially contribute to the spread of the virus.

Medics, including the Department of Health's Dr Tony Holohan, however, have cautioned against moving too soon.

On Thursday, Professor Karina Butler, a consultant paediatrician and infectious diseases specialist, told RTÉ radio that more research and antibody testing is needed to provide a clearer picture on how the virus impacts on children before any facilities are reopened.

The Department of Children said it is currently “developing and costing proposals” for the phased reopening of early learning and childcare services but that the work was “complex” and would be informed by NPHET guidance and the ‘return to work safely’ protocol.

“The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is actively engaging with key stakeholders in the sector on this work. An Advisory Group has been established that includes membership from across the sector,” a spokesperson said, adding that the first meeting took place on Wednesday.

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