Childcare Services | Commencement Matter

26 January 2021

Ivana Bacik

Senator Ivana Bacik:

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming in himself to take this important matter. I have raised this matter to seek clarity as to the status of early years services.

As the Minister knows, early years services and childcare providers are concerned about the lack of clarity and certainty around their position. In recent days and weeks, I have been engaging extensively with providers, those involved in the SIPTU Big Start campaign and with Seas Suas, representatives of which communicated yesterday with all Oireachtas Members, seeking clarity on the full reopening of the sector and asking what public health criteria will be used to enable them to reopen fully. We are all aware that childcare providers are now in their fourth week of offering services on a reduced basis to the children of essential workers. Many of them are deeply concerned about their safety in their work environment and there are also issues around not operating at full capacity in terms of funding and resources. A survey by the Federation of Early Childhood Providers found that, of 706 early years and childcare services that participated and have been open on a reduced basis since 4 January, 14% had a positive Covid-19 case resulting in the closure of either pods or the full service. Some 67% of their members indicated that staff were uncomfortable attending work as they feel unsafe in their work environment.

We know that a Cabinet decision is due today and we understand that a lockdown until 5 March is likely. In that context, the childcare providers providing services and the staff going into work every day to provide that service are entitled to greater clarity.

A further issue that has been raised with me relates to the roll-out of the vaccine and where childcare staff will be in the prioritisation list to receive a vaccine. That is also a matter of great concern. We know, from the SIPTU Big Start campaign, that as many as 79% of early years professionals do not have access to sick pay. There are multiple issues for those working in the sector. There are also issues for those of us who are parents and issues around child safety. In a context where the Government appears to believe it is not practical to introduce an aggressive suppression strategy, as the Labour Party has sought, including mandatory hotel quarantine, it is extraordinary that we are potentially facing months of children being denied the opportunity to return to school. Crèches and childcare providers will not be able to open fully. Children requiring additional education still face a level of uncertainty and businesses remain closed while it is not practical to enforce the rules on non-essential travel. I looked at the arrivals and departures at Dublin Airport and there are flights going out to Lanzarote every day this week. It is extraordinary that those could be classed as essential travel. I am glad that the Government is going to implement stronger enforcement of those rules but we, in the Labour Party, have called for an aggressive suppression strategy. That is clearly what people want and what we, as a country, need to try if we are to reduce our transmission rates and then keep them low because we know about the uncertainty over the vaccine roll-out and its timing. It is clear that we are going to need a longer-term strategy than it appears the Government is prepared to take. I am disappointed about that. It is an important context within which childcare providers deserve greater clarity and assurance on reopening.

Minister Roderic O'Gorman

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I acknowledge that even in level 5, childcare professionals are continuing to provide childcare services and school-age childcare for the children of essential workers. They are also providing services to vulnerable children and that is an important support in the economy which did not happen during the major lockdown of March 2020. I express my gratitude to people in the entire sector for all they are doing. The Senator will know that the early learning and care and school-age childcare services that are providing childcare to the children of essential workers and vulnerable children are fully funded by the State through all the existing departmental funding schemes, including the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, scheme, the national childcare scheme, NCS, the community childcare subvention programme, CCSP, and the training and employment childcare, TEC, programme, whether children are attending or not.

Services that are currently closed due to the fact that they have the permission of the Department, including all services that deliver the ECCE scheme and other services for which there is no demand from eligible parents, are also receiving full subsidies from all of those schemes.

The public health advice continues to be that it is not necessary to close preschool or childcare services due to a risk of Covid-19. ECCE has been closed as part of the general effort to reduce movement across the community, not because there is any risk to either the children or the childcare professionals working in those services. However, it is important to acknowledge, as I think we all do, that no environment is without risk of Covid-19.

To reduce and mitigate that risk, we have very detailed guidelines for the childcare sector which have been implemented with great rigour across the sector since May of last year. Between 1 November and 15 November, there were 85 notifications of the presence of Covid in a childcare service. It is important to note that not all cases of Covid-19 in a service will result in the full closure of a service or of a pod. Where there is evidence of a confirmed case within a service during the infectious period, the HSE works with the service provider to decide what measures need to be taken. The HSE has informed my Department that, in 2021 to date, fewer than five childcare services have been directed to close fully as a result of Covid-19.

The Senator raised the issues of vaccination and testing. My Department has been engaging rigorously with the Department of Health on the issue of vaccination. Early learning and care staff and school-age childcare staff are 11th on the list of priority for vaccination. This means that they are given greater priority than those aged 55 to 64 in other occupations important to the functioning of society. Obviously, we have an evidence-based allocation strategy. Should the evidence change, I will certainly advocate on behalf of the sector.

More than 1,800 childcare services are currently open and providing childcare to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children. All of these services continue to receive funding from the full range of departmental streams. Services which are closed with the permission of the Department also receive the full subsidies. Services which are currently closed with permission, including the 1,500 early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme-only services and 800 other services, are receiving force majeure funding, as will services which are directed to close due to public health considerations arising from Covid-19. Childcare services in which there is no demand for childcare from eligible parents can also apply for this funding on a weekly basis. All childcare services continue to get funding from the employment wage subsidy scheme, which makes up approximately 50% of their total funding. The sustainability fund is also available to services that have issues with regard to sustainability.

Senator Ivana Bacik:

While the Minister did not address the broader issue, I thank him for the comprehensive response on the specific issues I raised with regard to childcare. I am advised that some services are still having difficulty in meeting operational costs and there was concern that they would be unable to recoup funding where they were unable to open due to staffing issues. I am glad the Minister has some provided some clarity on that point. I would like to engage with him further on the future Covid-19 sustainability fund which he has mentioned and to which he has said services facing financial difficulties will soon be able to apply. That is certainly welcome.

The Minister has said that fewer than five services are fully closed but the survey certainly indicates that there has been a higher rate of cases resulting in the closure of pods within services. That remains a matter of concern.

I will finish, as did the Minister, by acknowledging the vital work of those who continue to provide this essential service throughout the pandemic. I will continue to advocate on their behalf. I look forward to further engagement with the Minister on this issue.

Minister Roderic O'Gorman

There has been rigorous engagement between my Department and the sector over recent weeks and particularly since the higher level 5 restrictions were introduced. We have had eight meetings of the childcare advisory group at which representatives have met officials of my Department. I have attended seven of those eight meetings myself because I know this is a difficult time for providers. We continue to work with providers and wider groups such as SIPTU, which is representing childcare professionals, to make sure the sector remains sustainable and to make sure we can keep it open for the parents who are essential workers and for vulnerable children. We will continue to work to develop schemes that will maintain funding for the sector while also addressing the issues of sustainability. Different childcare services have different funding streams and their funding comes from different sources. Some are more reliant on fees from parents. We will be addressing these issues in the near future.