Covid-19 has 'exacerbated' problems for childcare providers who want long-term plan

<=Early Childhood Ireland says the issues of insurance, staff recruitment and retention and the viability of settings have "not gone away and have been, if anything, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis". File photo.
By Juno McEnroe
Political Correspondent

Childcare providers are warning that the Covid-19 pandemic has exasperated struggling services and that a detailed long-term plan is needed for the sector.

Providers say staff shortages may force the closure of some units and that well-resourced services will be even more important in a post-pandemic scenario.

The stark situation in the sector will be laid out to TDs on the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee tomorrow, as it investigates how services are coping during the pandemic and ahead of providers partially reopening doors next week.

Department of Children's secretary-general, Fergal Lynch says that €75m was spent during the pandemic to support almost 4,000 providers and 27,500 staff, some two and a half times what would normally go to services at this time.

He said: “We recognise that the sector operates in a very challenging environment, with low pay and a high turnover of staff.”

While limited take-up is expected next week when providers care for essential workers' children, department chiefs say demand will pick up.

Mr Lynch said: “Estimating likely demand for childcare services between June 29 and early Sept is a significant challenge.

The planned reopening on June 29 occurs at a time when just 40% of services would normally be open at this time of year (1,800 out of 4,500 providers).

"We are conscious that demand may be lower to start, but rise as parents seek to return to their own work, to more normal living, and feel greater confidence regarding the safety of their children.”

Nonetheless, by the autumn, demand may be lower than usual — because of job losses among parents, or because of more flexible working arrangements.

The Association of Childhood Providers will say there is still "confusion" around the
The Association of Childhood Providers will say there is still "confusion" around the 'pod' system and how children will be cared for when doors reopen next week.

Providers are a lot less optimistic about the sector's future.

Early Childhood Ireland, which represents 3,800 providers, says the issues of insurance, staff recruitment and retention and the viability of settings have "not gone away and have been, if anything, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis".

“Aside from the rights of babies and children to avail of high-quality early years experiences, a well-resourced and sustainable early years system will be essential for this new economy to function,” says CEO Teresa Heeney.

While wages are guaranteed for childcare workers now, the group says there is no clarity for the autumn: "Central government needs urgently to engage with the sector and develop a plan on how funding needs will be met."

The Association of Childhood Providers will say there is still "confusion" around the 'pod' system and how children will be cared for when doors reopen next week. Extra staff will be needed for facilitating the arrival of children, cleaning, administration and rooms may have to close if some workers do not return to services.

Come August, the return of school-aged children and other under EECE will also be problematic, says provider Paula Donohoe: “If we are still utilising the ‘playpod’ model, the availability of staff to meet this increased demand will be extremely limited.”

Frustrated healthcare workers will also vent their anger at a failed system to care for their children, as outlined by SIPTU's Paul Bell: “There is a clear crisis with affordability as parents pay the highest fees in Europe, undermining the quality and sustainability of the service.”

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