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Explainer: What childcare options are available in Level 5 and who gets priority?

The government has asked parents who are not essential workers to keep their children at home.

CHILDCARE FACILITIES ACROSS the country re-opened this morning after the Christmas break.

Providers, who have been asked to prioritise the children of essential workers, are seeking clarity from government on how they are to manage this and a more definite timeline for the return of their other services.

Following the announcement of further restrictions last week, the government confirmed childcare services would continue to operate from 4 January. Childminding can also continue, both in the child’s home and in the minder’s home.

This excludes pre-school services, which are not due to resume until 11 January. 

Who will be prioritised?

The government asked childcare providers to reopen as planned from today to provide childcare, “particularly to priority groups”. 

Under Level 5 of the government’s Covid-19 plan, there is a long list of services that are deemed ‘essential’:

  • Agriculture, horticulture, forestry, fishing, animal welfare and related services;
  • Manufacturing;
  • Supply, repair and installation of machinery and equipment;
  • Electricity, gas, water, sewage and waste management;
  • Construction and development;
  • Wholesale and retail trade;
  • Transport, storage and communications;
  • Accommodation and food services;
  • Information and communications;
  • Financial and legal activities;
  • Professional, scientific and technical activities;
  • Rental and leasing activities;
  • Administrative and support activities;
  • Public administration, emergency services and defence;
  • Human health and social work activities;
  • Education;
  • Community and voluntary services.

Not all workers in these categories are considered essential workers. ‘Retail trade’, for example, is confined to ‘essential retail outlets’ such as supermarkets.

The Department of Children said it would provide guidance to services on how to prioritise demand for places. Over the weekend, it did provide some guidance to providers, but there was little detail on how to manage the prioritisation.

The guidance document states that services are being asked to provide childcare for “the children of essential workers – with a link to the long list above – and vulnerable children”. 

‘Vulnerable children’ include those who are sponsored under the National Childcare Scheme and those funded under legacy schemes who are experiencing poverty, disadvantage or child welfare issues as well as children with additional needs who may benefit from immediate re-engagement. 

The guidance also states that the minister has asked parents to keep their children at home if they do not fall within these categories to ensure there are places for those who need them most. 

Minister Roderic O’Gorman has said there is no plan to refine the current essential worker list for childcare purposes. He said he thought this would create “additional confusion”. 

How are childcare providers deciding who gets priority?

Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, told that providers are seeking clarity on how to manage prioritisation.

She said parents have taken on board the call to keep their children at home if they are not essential workers. 

“Some parents are splitting shifts, some are bringing the children to the creche for three hours rather than six and so on, so there’s collaboration about what’s best and what can be achieved,” she said.

“There were definitely fewer parents turning up, I’d say it’s between 20% and 30% capacity today.”

“Services are trying to do their best for parents. Many are operating on a restricted timetable so maybe they used to stay open until 6pm and are now closing at 4pm. They have time then after that for the additional cleaning,” Heeney explained.

In terms of the prioritisation, that’s something we’re seeking clarification from government on. Providers are doing it, but it very much depends on what parents are saying they need and what they can provide.

“But it’s not a position members want to be in, to make those judgements on who needs the place most, whether it’s needed more by the person producing food or the person going into the lab. They are of equal importance so we really do need help if we are to stay open.

Heeney said if childcare services are to remain open, workers should be given priority for vaccinations and should have access to rapid testing. 

“A lot of members purchased private tests before returning this week so they could feel secure and give assurance to staff and parents, but that’s an untenable cost they cannot possibly bear alone,” she said. 

Providers also want the government to confirm as soon as possible this week whether pre-school services will be expected to resume next Monday. 

“Members are working really hard to plan how to open safely and they need to find out what demand is there and how to supply it,” she said. “They need clarity on this as early as possible in the week.”

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