Childcare body calls for cross-government package and mindset shift in response to Covid crisis

Seas Suas calls for the immediate appointment of the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure to the childcare taskforce to avoid “third collapsed scheme”  

Representative group publishes strategy document ‘Reopen Safely, Recover Sustainably’ including 35 recommendations for safe, sustainable childcare

  • Childcare reopening looking “less likely by the day” until Government grasps financial fundamentals 
  • Seas Suas childcare strategy calls for existing “unused” Government fund to be “redirected, expanded and extended” to help providers meet cashflow and cost challenges on a “reducing scale”
  • Comprehensive list of 35 recommendations to reopen safely include access to dedicated Covid-19 testing and results (within 24-hour period), along with dedicated contact tracing for childcare sector
  • Regina Bushell, chair of Seas Suas: “This is a cashflow crisis, not a capital one. Safety concerns, while complex, can be addressed. But no amount of handwashing and PPE can change the fact that as little as one in five children are expected to return as children of essential workers” 

The representative body for independent early learning and care providers (ELC), Seas Suas, has called for a “cross-government package” to address what they say will be a prolonged crisis in ELC provision. The organisation also signalled that current efforts to reopen childcare are set to fail for a third time unless and until there is a fundamental mindset shift in Government. 

Publishing its post-lockdown strategy documentReopen Safely, Recover Sustainably, Seas Suas estimates an occupancy level as low as 20% or one in five children as the children of essential workers are prioritised.

While Seas Suas fully supports extensive health and safety measures and a cautious approach to reopening – documented in its 35 comprehensive recommendations to reopen – it has warned that without financial supports to make up for decreased incomes and increased costs, such as PPE and daily additional deep cleans, many early learning and care providers will choose not to re-open or may go out of business. This, in turn, will cause a shortage of places for young children and delay parents return to work nationally.

The cross-government reopen package

Seas Suas’s proposed cross-government reopen package, which includes asks across five departments in addition to Revenue and Tusla includes a focus on funding already approved by the Department of Finance and Public Expenditure.

On 8 May, Minister Katherine Zappone announced a €4.2 million per week fund for at-home childcare provision for healthcare workers for the period 8 May–29 June. The majority of this fund remains unused and will amount to some €30 million.

Seas Suas has recommended redirecting, expanding and extending this fund to early learning and care providers to the end of this year. This way, ELC providers would over the immediate recovery period be better positioned to withstand the collapse in cashflow and contribute to reopening costs (e.g. PPE and additional daily deep cleans) as the sector and overall economy commences recovery.  

As up to 70% (68%) of the early learning and care sector’s costs are staff wages, Seas Suas’s strategy document also calls for an extension of the Wage Subsidy Scheme on a tapered basis. Further recommendations include the abolition of commercial rates on creches providing full-time day-care facilities.

Reopen safely

Privately owned and operated childcare providers employ 18,000 ELC professionals and other staff and care for over 144,000 children. In its ‘Reopen Safely, Recover Sustainably’ strategy document, Seas Suas outlines a comprehensive list of 35 recommendations for the safe reopen of childcare provision which includes:

  • The appointment of a dedicated internal Covid-19 officer in childcare centres to implement health and safety procedures and monitor progress and risk
  • Access to dedicated Covid-19 testing and results (within 24-hour period), along with dedicated contact tracing for childcare sector
  • A Covid-19 child-friendly ‘education pack’ would be developed by providers to explain the measures to children, with regular practice sessions
  • Children and their parents would visit their centre before re-opening as settling in arrangements require one to two weeks to re-establish connections
  • Reassurance to parents about their child’s well-being and revised operating protocols would be provided

Commenting, Regina Bushell, Chair of Seas Suas, said: 

“The Covid-19 lockdown has not been easy on any sector, but it is undeniable that the closure of independent early learning and care services has had profound effects on Ireland’s children and their parents’ productivity. 

“The Government’s response to the crisis continues to fail to grasp the financial fundamentals that are at the core of the problem. Two previous attempts have collapsed and unless there is a change in mindset, we will have a third collapse.

“This is a cashflow crisis, not a capital one. Safety concerns, while complex, can be addressed. But no amount of handwashing or PPE can change the fact that as little as one in five children will return.

“Despite having fewer children on premises, providers will still need to meet their fixed costs, such as rent and mortgage repayments, and in addition pay for new costs like PPE and daily additional deep cleans.

“Our proposals, which include a cross-government support package, provide for an orderly and economically viable return for the country’s 3,200 privately owned childcare providers. However, they can only work if there is a cross-governmental response. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs cannot do this alone. It must start by immediately putting the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure at the centre of the solution.

“Without the active involvement of the paymaster, financial considerations will continue to be periphery to the taskforce and well-intentioned measures which require funding will not be deliverable.

“We are also calling for the recently secured fund of €4.2 million per week for the childcare sector, to be redirected, expanded and extended to providers. Without providers, there is no childcare service for working parents. 

“The current fund has not been taken-up as intended. Without delay, it should be redirected to childcare providers and extended for up to 12-months to meaningfully address the crisis.

“Such a fund could be tailored to meet the shortfall between demand and breakeven for those providers to re-open and stay open. The model can be designed on a reduced sliding scale to reflect the increase in demand for childcare services in line with a recovering economy. We are also calling for the fund to be increased to a meaningful level to have the desired impact. 

“Additionally, the abolition of commercial rates on creches providing full-time day-care facilities would provide immediate relief and financial support to reopen.

“Childcare is an essential part of Ireland’s economy and must therefore be considered essential to its recovery; it cannot be viewed in isolation. The lockdown has shown us that despite parents’ best efforts, it is virtually impossible to double-up as a full-time educator and a full-time, productive employee.

“Today, we are calling on Minister Paschal Donohoe and Minister Katherine Zappone to prioritise a realistic and sustainable reopening of Ireland’s early learning and childcare services. The closer that our sector gets to normality, the faster the country recovers.”