Children over-6 to ‘keep apart’ in play pods

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone . Photo: Rollingnews

Children older than six will be asked to keep a distance between each other in play-pods under plans issued to providers for the reopening of childcare facilities.

Documents sent last night to providers by Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone, seen by the Irish Examiner, are set to be discussed at Cabinet tomorrow for a plan to restart services - for essential workers - on June 29.

The plan’s publication comes as the Cabinet was told by Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, that he is not ready to recommend a reduction in the social distancing rules from 2m to 1m.

Under Ms Zappone’s plan, staff in pods should maintain social distance.

Protection equipment, such as masks, however, will not be required by carers under the agreed plans for early learning and school-age childcare services.

Children in play pods — where maximum numbers have yet to be decided — must also remain apart from other pods in shared spaces, including outdoors, and during drop off and collection.

Ms Zappone, in a letter, said the central principles for reopening childcare facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic was subject to review by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and the HSE.

It is understood a sustained extension of the wage subsidy scheme specifically for childcare providers is being discussed by government formation teams, which could be key to gaining the backing of services.

A note for providers says: “The current evidence suggests that children seem generally less likely to catch the infection and are not more likely than adults to spread infection to other people. 

"Children have rarely been the person who brought Covid-19 into a household when household spread has happened.”

However, it also says it is important for parents and childcare staff to accept that “no interpersonal activity is without risk of transmission of infection”.

Other guidelines include:

  • A large room may contain more than one play pod provided there are partitions that prevent physical contact between the play pods;
  • Staff from different pods should maintain social distancing. Where two staff are part of one pod, they should social distance. Children from different pods should not play together.
  • As far as possible, staff and parents should maintain social distancing.
  • Staggered start and finish times and exits, may impact a facility’s capacity.

Meanwhile, Dr Holohan told ministers at a meeting of Cabinet earlier yesterday there would be no change to the 2m physical distancing rule. 

This is despite calls for it to be relaxed to 1m to allow more public and business activity based on a World Health Organisation (WHO) opinion that 1m sufficiently protects against the virus.

“It is a reasonable interpretation of the evidence, and a precautionary approach to its application, and we think it’s the right measure for now,” he said.

However, a sitting minister said he is “baffled” as to why the Government has not moved to change the rule.

John Halligan, Minister of State for training and skills, made his concerns known to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about the hardline stance taken on the issue at the insistence of medical officials.

“It’s time for politicians to be brave and to accelerate the lifting of lockdown restrictions,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“I am baffled as to why we should be going against the WHO on this, considering that the Irish NPHET have found a “lack of evidence” in differentiating between the benefit of a one versus two metre distance,” he said.

Elsewhere, Health Minister Simon Harris is to seek government approval to extend the €115m-a-month deal with the country’s 19 private nursing homes by another 30 days. 

Mr Harris will formally get approval ahead of Sunday, the point where the HSE must contact the private hospitals to exercise the extension option in order to ensure adequate capacity in the system.

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