Wednesday, 20 May 2020
Covid-19 (Children and Youth Affairs): Statements
First, I will address the cancellation of the scheme to deliver childcare to essential healthcare workers. The scheme was intended to be temporary. Other countries had maintained a level of service to the children of essential workers; in Ireland, for strong public health reasons, it was deemed that full closure of childcare services was necessary. As a consequence, staff, to a large extent, disengaged with the day-to-day delivery of childcare services.
The scheme had to operate within the strict parameters outlined by public health concerns. Providing care in childcare centres was not an option. Providing the service in the homes of childminders was not an option. There was only one option and one way to provide the service within the public health guidelines. This could only operate by having childcare professionals going to the homes of essential health workers and caring for the children in the child's home environment. This approach was also recommended by representatives of the childcare sector as they believed it would protect the health of children, families and childcare practitioners in this early phase of the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions. They had earlier proposed a centre-based model but as the public health concerns to limit the risk to children, staff and families became more evident, they too took a safety first approach and the outreach model became the model of choice to safeguard all concerned.
The Department of Health and senior officials from other Departments considered the scheme and recommended that we proceed. My Department was aware of a similar smaller-scale initiative developed voluntarily elsewhere in the country that suggested our scheme could work. Under that scheme, 1,400 people were identified who were willing to provide childcare to essential workers. Despite the similarity of the scheme to ours, the issues that arose in the State scheme did not arise for the voluntary scheme. These issues related to insurance, public health fears, supervision, the non-provision of lunch and rest breaks and working in an unfamiliar work environment. On this basis, my Department developed a plan and I secured €4.2 million per week to deliver it. This funding enabled childcare practitioners to be paid a recommended average of €15 per hour. Childcare managers would also receive payment for oversight of the service. It is not true to say there was no consultation with the sector; both my Department and I invested very significantly in consultation and we are happy to provide details of that.
I will now focus on the phased reopening of the childcare sector. This is critical to the well-being of children and parents and it is also vital in restarting the economy. As Members are aware, the Government's road map for emerging from this crisis gives 29 June as the date for the phased reopening of childcare. This is a big step and I am focused on supporting centre-based services and childminders. I do not underestimate the challenge and I do not underestimate the anxiety for parents and childcare professionals. Parents should know their children will be in good hands and almost all staff working in early learning and care have a level 5 qualification in early childhood care, with 25% having degrees. Good hygiene practice is a cornerstone of their work. They are trained in this and there are policies and procedures in place.
Many parents witnessed their children coughing into their elbows long before Covid-19 and they were conscious of handwashing requirements. My Department will build on this by providing further training relating to Covid-specific needs.
It is worth pointing out that bringing children together in groups for care, education and play has never been free of infection risk. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, risks of infection, including meningitis, verotoxigenic E. coli and others, were accepted as essential to overall child welfare and development and were therefore managed, although they could not be eliminated. In the context of Covid-19, public health experts are considering the aspects of this situation that have changed and may need to be factored into our thinking as we progress.
There is a view that information from multiple sources and reviews supports a conclusion that Covid-19 infection in children appears to be no more frequent, and probably less frequent, than in adults. I am advised that the evidence also indicates that it is generally associated with less severe diseases than in adults. However, we will all be aware of recent reports that some children have serious illnesses and that the recent emergence of paediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome is a cause of concern. There are also indications that children infected with the virus are less likely to spread it than adults.
It is significant that our public health professionals have signalled that the time is right to begin this phase of restarting our lives. I spoke to Professor Martin Cormican on Monday. He is the HSE lead for healthcare-associated infections and is helping us to plan the reopening. Professor Cormican was clear that reopening childcare services could not be done with zero risk. We need to minimise that risk while acknowledging the risk of not providing early education and childcare. Not providing childcare is a significant risk.
For the phased reopening, we will be referring to the Norwegian model, among others, and how this might apply to Ireland. As a starting point, it is important to acknowledge that children under six years of age cannot do social distancing. Attempts at social distancing would be traumatic for children and the adults caring for them. Young children have had enough to cope with without having further abnormality thrust on them as we hopefully begin to emerge from the crisis. Regular hand washing, as most children have been doing at home, will be the norm at crèche and preschool. There was already good practice in place before Covid, and we will strengthen that further.
Our preliminary guidance is pointing towards preparations whereby childcare will operate in pods. As far as possible, this will entail small groups of children with the same childcare practitioner in the same room with the same toys every time they are there. We are exploring the number of children that could be cared for by a single adult childcare practitioner. They will play together and will be encouraged to stay together in their pods and use outdoor spaces as much as possible.
We need to examine the extent that adults working in a childcare centre can social distance from one another. In order to keep children, childcare practitioners and families as safe as possible, we also need to examine ways of limiting interaction with other parents and guardians. This will require practical arrangements to help us minimise contact. Other countries have done this by staggered opening hours, but we will also examine other practices relating to the reception of children. One option is to devise a way for children to be received at the crèche while their parents remain in their cars, with practitioners collecting the children from the cars, if that is how they travel. For parents and children who come to the preschool or crèche on foot, we could put in place demarcated outdoor waiting areas for them. This could allow the childcare professional to collect the child without having contact with the parent. We will need to factor in sheltered spaces for when the weather is bad and any other mitigating factor that may arise.
Our preliminary advice is that the wearing of face masks by children under six years of age is unlikely to contribute to improved infection control. It may be the case that children would not use them consistently without a degree of reinforcement or coercion. This would not be desirable. The initial thinking on the wearing of face masks by adults working in childcare settings is that it may not be practical. This matter will be considered and further explored.
We will consider practical guidelines for food preparation and serving. This will need to be done in such a way that it avoids the sharing of crockery and utensils.
This is a work in progress and we will be publishing detailed guidance as soon as possible. As the House will be aware, I am chairing an advisory group on reopening early learning and care and school aged childcare services. There are six sectoral representatives of the group who have been nominated by the childcare sector. I have also appointed SIPTU and Childminding Ireland to the group. With public health input we are working to develop the safest and most pragmatic way to deliver this vital service. The group has had three meetings in the past week. I am exceptionally grateful to the advisory group for the intense level of continued engagement to make this a success. The expertise and experience of the group is essential to help us to make this reopening as child-friendly as possible while protecting everybody. As stated earlier, this is not zero risk. We will minimise risk. There will be an incident-----
I am sharing time. With the permission of the Minister, I will engage in rapid fire questions and answers.
There are three major issues in the childcare sector which I wish to raise, the first issue being childcare for health care workers. I listened to the Minister's statement. What amazes me is that her first mention of the Department's provision for emergency childcare for essential health care staff is, "document first appeared in NPHET's minutes on 16 March." That is nine weeks ago. The Minister today mentioned that she engaged last Monday with Professor Martin Cormican. I am at a loss. Less than two weeks ago the Minister, on the floor of this House, announced a fantastic scheme at a cost of €4.3 million per week and she outlined all of the plans. I am wondering why the Minister did not have the buy-in of the sector. Why did only six providers sign-up? Where did it all fall apart and who was advising the Minister on it?
On the consultation or advice from the Department of Health, we did have it as we went along. I have noted that in the speech. This particular scheme was one of two schemes we were working on devising, as there is a centre based scheme as well. We were working with the Department of Health and the HSE in regard to that and in terms of any kind of concerns in regard to infection control. That is the first issue which the Deputy raised.
I thank the Minister. Will the Minister explain to me why then for the past two weeks when I have sought the detailed minutes of all the meetings that have happened between her Department and NPHET they have not been provided?
I thank the Minister. When it was becoming apparent that the outreach model was not going to work did the Minister examine the possibility of extending the partial state indemnity to childcare providers for Covid-19 related claims and did she consult with other insurance companies?
We did look at the issue of the State indemnity and we argued many times with the Department of Public Expenditure for that to be the case. Effectively, that Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said no. That is what happened there.
The Minister has responded in regard to consulting with the providers to assess the buy-in but only six signed up to the scheme. Can I hear the Minister's thoughts on only six of over 4,500 providers in the country signing up to the scheme?
Indeed the Deputy can. I outlined in my opening speech the processes of various types of consultation we had in regard to developing the scheme, including with the sector on some of the issues that it was still then raising in terms of the reasons why they did not sign-up. They did identify some of those reasons. We did fight for the insurance, as I have described. In anticipation of a later question I can point out that we do have the insurance cover now for the centre-based scheme in regard to Covid-19 related claims. That is a major breakthrough, I think.
On when we actually announced the scheme, my personal view is that as time continued to pass the issue in regard to the fear of going into the homes of health care workers became larger. That is one of the things they said inhibited sign-up.
I will now move to the impact of Covid-19 on childcare more generally. Under the Government's plan to reopen Ireland, more workers will return to their places of work and this will create enormous pressures on the childcare sector. The road map provides for phases 3 and 4.
On the last day the Minister was in the Dáil, I asked her what is an essential worker. Will she tell me today what is an essential worker, please?
With the height of respect to the Minister, what we are trying to establish today is to give confidence in the sector to the people who are returning to work. The Taoiseach has launched a road map which includes a heading for childcare and education. Under education, there is nothing. Under childcare, there are three phases, with phase 1 being to provide support, confidence and a nine-week wait for essential front-line workers. Phase 3 is the reintegration of the outreach model into the in-service provision for essential front-line workers. However, we will already have had two other phases before moving on to phase 3. Workers want to know whether they are deemed essential. How do we restore people's confidence when they have seen phase 1 fall off the map?
Finally, when phase 4 comes along, will we be telling workers going out that they can only have care or provision on one day out of five? Are we saying to the woman going back to work that she must tell her employer she can only show up on one day out of five? Can the Minister explain this road map to me?
I can. First, as the Deputy is aware, the road map is following the advice in terms of the reopening of childcare services and what happens during that reopening for the childcare profession. We are following the public health advice, and the advice we got in terms of this first effort is that we had to go into the homes. As I have already described, we worked with the Department of Health, the HSE and the sector. We looked at an example and developed the best scheme we could in the context of one option, namely, going into the homes of healthcare workers. It was not a question of carte blanche. That is what we had to do. Those restrictions were given to us.
In relation to phase 4, there is going to be a huge capacity issue. What is the Department of Children and Youth Affairs doing to address that? I go back to the point that if we are telling workers that they can only use the service on one out of five days, how is the Department addressing that capacity issue and what measures is it putting in place? Are the city and county childcare committees currently heat-mapping right across the country to understand, first, who the essential workers are and, second, how many of the services are going to sign up to the plan? The rumour on the ground is that, on 29 June, the Minister may not have the buy-in of all service providers.
First, as I mentioned, I have established an advisory group of people who represent the sector. I am working with the group and I expect that the scheme we are developing will effectively assist people and ensure we have many more providers signing up. Second, on the question of capacity, we have almost completed a survey that we will be sending out to providers and another survey to parents to assess the capacity and the potential for capacity. We will get that information in time for the coming phases and it will give us some sense of the demand. The Deputy may be aware, because I know she has been doing the research, that in other countries, when childcare services have reopened, the demand has been lower than anticipated because of the fear of parents for their children.
This is my last point, and if the Minister could address it in her reply to another speaker, that would be great. I go back again to the definition of essential workers, assuming all the phases open up.
If the latter proves to be the case, what powers does she plan to exercise regarding who decides who is an essential worker's child and who gets service?
I will be as brief as possible. My question concerns the Federation of Early Childcare Providers. Is it being consulted and is it included in the groups to be consulted on how we provide childcare in future? Has the Minister engaged with other lead Departments, such as the Department of Health, including in the context of those with disabilities, regarding more resources for children with extra needs? Has she made any attempt, right now and not just regarding childcare, to contact any other Departments and outline her plans for the future?
Regarding the Deputy's first question, as I described, I have an advisory group and the sector chose the representatives that would be on it. We asked the sector to choose. I think that is a good principle. Those are the people who are there.
I made the decision that we needed childminders because they are going to be a key part of the solution, especially as we move forward, and also the unions. I am going to establish a reference group and we are going to invite several other people who represent certain parts of this sector. Apart from the federation, there are other groupings and people with representatives. We are going to look at that and I am going to set up that reference group next week.
Why was the Federation of Early Childhood Providers excluded from the talks process? Whoever made the decision, the Minister is in charge and she, ultimately, has to make the decision. My second, previous, point concerned consultation with other Departments regarding children needing special interventions, physical and mental. What is the Minister's engagement with other Departments or has she-----
Regarding the Deputy's first question, I, as Minister, made a decision, because I think it is good practice, to ask representatives from the sector to put forward names. It was those in the sector who put those names forward. I have also suggested a way in which I am going to try to draw a wider representation. I think that is a very good practice.
On the Deputy's second question regarding the rights of children with additional needs or disabilities, we are of course concerned and worried about them. As the Deputy knows, there is not delivery of schools, preschools and crèches, but-----
The situation with childcare is a growing concern for parents, so much so that many are very upset trying to figure out what the plan is and where they are going to go with this. They are already struggling to balance changing shifts, using up holidays, reducing their hours and many different ways to try and cope with this situation. It is not exclusively an issue for front-line workers. As more people return to places of work, this is a greater concern for more families.
Tá brú ollmhór ar dhaoine maidir leis an tslí ina bhfuil cúram leanaí á láimhseáil, nó nach bhfuil sé á láimhseáil. Mar sin, táimid ag lorg go gcuirtear feabhas air agus go gcuirtear plean cinnte le chéile. Caithfear foghlaim ón tslí inar theip ar an bplean deireanach agus fiafraí cad go díreach a chaithfear a dhéanamh chun cinntiú go mbeidh córas ann. What has been learned from the way the last scheme crashed that can be implemented in the new plan B, C or even D? What confidence can parents have that a plan C or D will come to fruition, having seen the other plan crash?
Turning to the stakeholders, what level of engagement is the Minister having with them and who are they? The Minister also referred to pods.
Will the pods be family-based or will other individuals be brought together in such a situation? Is that plan realistic, given that it was originally set out that childcare would reopen to the wider public within six weeks? The plan was that childcare would be made available for front-line workers in phases 1 and 2. Will the Government be able to achieve its goals or is the Minister considering reviewing the proposals and putting a new timetable in place? I ask the Minister to set out the road map in that regard.
As I indicated, I am intensively engaging with the sector. I identified how that is proceeding. We have already met three times. Some of the Deputy's questions are related to those asked by Deputy Rabbitte, such as on the issue of how one prioritises, especially in the case of a phased reopening in line with the public health advice. It must be phased; we cannot bring all children back in at once. Along with the advisory group, I am looking at and working through issues such as that of essential workers, as well as the already vulnerable children who attending a private provider or other centre.
The Sinn Féin speakers will use 11 of our 15 allocated minutes and leave four minutes for the Minister to respond. I will share time with Deputies O'Rourke and Gould.
I do not wish to be repetitive. In her opening statement, the Minister addressed some of the issues I intended to raise, including guidelines, reopening and pods. The issue of consultation has been raised several times in the House. It is essential that childcare and early years settings are given adequate time to put the required measures in place. Unfortunately, it is often the case in the early years sector that a measure is announced and there is panic about getting it done in time. That was the case with the wage subsidy, where there was a delay of a few weeks after it was announced, and the cancellation of childcare for front-line workers. Places should not be told they can reopen on 29 June without being given the guidelines, time or training to put in place whatever needs to be done to open. The sector needs time to deal with whatever guidelines and measures need to be put in place.
I refer to sustainability. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there is no point in discussing the early years sector or childcare if sustainability is not at the heart of that discussion. Without sustainability, there will be no services to open. Unfortunately, places are closing because they cannot afford to stay open. That will have a major impact on people returning to work, particularly women, because, as all Members know, childcare generally falls to them. It will also have a major impact on children. We should not forget that children are at the core of this issue. They have endured many u-turns in their lives in recent weeks. The vast majority of them are an excellent example of how one can deal and cope with change.
That leads me on to my next question. The Minister earlier touched on the issue of children with additional needs and those in the vulnerable or at-risk categories. As Members are aware, all children benefit from early years education. Some people think the children benefit as a result of the work that they do there but, rather it is a combination of their work, social interaction and everything else they learn in the facility. Children with additional needs who are going through a difficult time trying to cope with the current situation, as are their parents and wider families, should be given priority. Will that be done? Similarly, children who have been referred to Tusla or are in a vulnerable category should be prioritised for a return to childcare. It is often their safe place and where they get their food and stability. It is important that we prioritise such children for return rather than focussing on the children of parents who are returning to work. Obviously, it is important that people be able to return to work but we must remember that children are at the heart of this issue.
The Minister touched on the issue of insurance. There seems to be a question mark over whether facilities will be covered. Has there been any update in that regard? We do not want a situation whereby providers think they will open on a particular date but the issue insurance suddenly arises as a problem and no providers reopen. Services should not be at a financial loss. If they can only take ten children instead of the 20 they previously catered for, they should be allocated funding for 20 children such that the business is sustainable.
I refer to Tusla, foster care, birth parents and access.
In the vast majority of situations, access has been suspended and the use of WhatsApp and Skype video calls and other forms of access have been encouraged. Is there any time frame for resuming access? Are there guidelines available for both foster and birth parents? This has been extremely difficult for children and for many birth parents who have not had the opportunity to physically see their children over the last number of weeks. Is there a time frame and plan for that?
My last point relates to maternity leave. There was some discussion earlier with the Minister for Finance about whether it would be possible to include women returning to work after maternity leave in the wage subsidy scheme. Is there any update on that, particularly with regard to childcare workers and early years workers? Is the Department of Children and Youth Affairs doing anything on that? Again we have a situation where it is women who are being left out.
Covid-19 public health advice is deliberately intended to restrict the movement of people and to get them to stay at home or as close to home as possible. While this public health advice has a significant impact on us all, it has a very profound impact on children at risk. I refer to children who live in homes that are not safe havens or sanctuaries; unfortunately for some children, home is the exact opposite.
People working in this area say that we have a perfect storm. We have children forced back into abusive homes but without the usual, normal protections provided by the mandated people who help to keep them safe and out of harm's way, like teachers, for example, who would otherwise spot something untoward. They also say that offenders are more active online now and are acting with more freedom. On the one hand, opportunities to abuse are greatly increased while, on the other hand, opportunities to intervene and help are reduced. I am sure we are all concerned about this matter and I ask the Minister to provide an update to the House on it. What has been the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on children at risk and on our ability to identify, protect and support them? One indicator might be referrals to Tusla, for example. Have these increased during this period, as one might expect in the circumstances, due to increases in cases of abuse or have they decreased, as one might fear, due to reduced reporting? I ask the Minister to provide an assessment and to outline her plans to respond and intervene.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis has had a very negative effect on young people. The closure of schools, colleges, sporting clubs, arts organisations, including dance and music groups, and so on has left a huge void in the lives of young people. Not being able to socialise with their friends, classmates and teammates as well as with their extended families, particularly their grandparents, has had a highly negative effect on them.
Young people have not been given the support they need to get through this crisis. We know the crisis is going to continue and will not go away in the short term. Has the Government put a strategy or plan together, along with funding, for a vision of how we will engage with young people? I have been involved with young people through coaching and training teams at my local GAA club, St. Vincent's, for over 35 years, as well as through my work with youth clubs and community groups. Our pitches are locked and our complexes are closed. All of our facilities are closed to young people. We would love to get young people back in but because of social distancing and the rules around that, we cannot do so. What we are seeing now, however, is more and more young people hanging around on street corners and other areas. My worry, both as a parent and as a person who works with young people, is that some of them will get involved with alcohol, drugs and anti-social behaviour. Many children are going to have serious issues with their mental health and there is a big job of work to be done by the Department in that context. I ask the Minister to give us some insight into what the Government is planning to do in that regard.
Unfortunately, young people with disabilities or additional needs are the forgotten victims of this crisis. The nature of the virus necessitates social distancing, which has led to the withdrawal of supports and the closure of schools.
I speak to parents who are under tremendous pressure in trying to mind their children and maintain social distancing while getting them through every day. Many of these children do not understand what we are going through. Will the Minister update me on the Government's plan to give these families support, which they need now?
I note the provision of such education comes under the headings of both education and disabilities, which come under different Departments. My problem is that parents are contacting me because their children cannot get into pre-school, primary school or secondary school if they have disabilities or additional needs. The question they are asking me is why the Government is not ensuring that every child is equal. We see in the Proclamation that every child should be equal. However, in this country, if a parent has a child with a disability or with additional needs, they are not equal in the current circumstances.
I am a new Deputy and the Minister is the old regime. Nonetheless, I respect her and the work she has done in her role and I hope that, before she departs, she could do some work on this issue because these families need support at this time. My fear is that the Covid-19 crisis and the provisions we have put in will hurt the families of children with disabilities, special needs and additional needs.
I congratulate the Deputy on his election. I will start with the last question. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is working with the Department of Education and Skills to develop transition supports for children with disabilities who will be moving from pre-school to school this September, so that is certainly one of the things we are doing.
The Deputy also asked what kinds of supports are in place for youth in these pandemic times. My Department is continuing to work closely with the different youth organisations and, in different instances, it has provided some additional financial support. In the youth sector, many organisations have stepped up to the plate and themselves identified the ways in which they can re-purpose their own resources in order to provide support to youths who are particularly in need, for whatever reason, and the Deputy mentioned mental health issues. Many organisations have taken their own initiatives in regard to the supports the Government continues to provide for them during this period.
I want to come back to the questions asked by Deputy Kathleen Funchion, who referred to the different schemes and the need for a realistic timeframe for the third scheme, which we have been asked to develop in a relatively short period of time. As the Deputy is aware, I consider the first scheme very successful and 84% of the providers have already signed up. It provides that sustainability and the financial and other resources which the Deputy, myself and others are so clearly concerned about in order to ensure that our childcare sector is there as we move forward.
The Deputy is correct that the timeframes are very tight. It is very ambitious. Everybody will be aware, as the Deputy is, that the Department and those involved in childcare and the early years sector are being asked to come back a couple of months before the schools and the schools are also planning for that. It is very ambitious and we know we need guidelines and training for the practitioners and professionals before they re-open. These are things we are discussing and trying to come to agreement on with the group I have established, in particular the timing as well as the content of these issues.
I will be delivering a report to Cabinet at the end of this month which will, hopefully, outline all of the ways in which we have consolidated critical aspects of the planning for this scheme. My hope is that we will be ready to open when there is NPHET guidance to the Department to prepare for that.
Of course parents are anxious for this to happen as I am sure are children because up to this point everything has been closed, including schools. We are the ones being asked to open first.
With regard to the Deputy's question on sustainability, the calculation is that by 28 June a total of €42 million will have been spent on the temporary wage subsidy scheme. This is a significant amount of money going into the sector. I am very clear, as are representatives of the sector I am working with, that, as we move to a new normal, issues of sustainability will be addressed. We will ask for wider consultation or submissions in this regard.
I want to clarify the insurance issue. With regard to this coming scheme, we have been in contact with the insurance sector on what cover can be provided for the phased reopening. Allianz, which provides insurance for 95% of centre-based providers, has confirmed it will provide insurance for services that reopen in accordance with the road map and that it will not apply a Covid-19 exclusion. It has confirmed this.
I thank the Minister for her remarks. The cancellation of the healthcare worker scheme has been a source of great anxiety for many parents who have been in touch with me, not only those who are healthcare workers but those who work in other essential roles and those working in other positions. The cancellation was, perhaps, quite predictable. When we last met in the Chamber many Deputies raised concerns about the issue of insurance and a lack of indemnity from the State. The issues that led to its cancellation were predicted by many of the Deputies here. It is disappointing but perhaps not surprising.
The Minister spoke about the fear among essential healthcare workers of working in the home and the potential for transmission, and the rising fear among staff and providers. Many of the parents struggling to work from home to whom I have spoken are not healthcare workers. They would have liked an outreach scheme such as this. They are struggling to manage working from home while providing care and education for their children. It is a source of huge anxiety and huge stress. Many Deputies have spoken about it. The reality is that for many people working from home there is no acknowledgement by their employers of the additional burden of having to work two jobs at once, the added stress this causes and the added stress of delays in work. This outreach scheme could have been very helpful for a huge variety of people and a wider drawing of it could have helped with that anxiety, and helped with the uptake with regard to what the Minister has spoken about. Obviously the stress on working families is significantly worse in single-parent families who cannot share a day or arrangements with a partner.
Generally, many of the parents who have been in contact with me feel there has been very little support for them and for families in general. Deputy Funchion mentioned this, as did speakers in the discussion with the Minister for Finance with regard to women returning from maternity leave. This is one example of how parents and families feel they are not being properly supported. At the end of April, RTÉ reported that An Taoiseach said special paid leave would be provided for the partners of public sector workers to provide childcare at home but a HSE circular earlier this month stated no special leave is available for Covid-19 caring arrangements. Workers were promised one thing but are not getting any of the supports they need and feel they are being let down. Many families speak to me about feeling isolated and being without support, feeling under stress and feeling no acknowledgement from either the Government or their employers with regard to this additional stress they are under.
These are anxious times and the last thing we want to be doing is adding more anxiety to parents in general. Exiting the lockdown is another source of anxiety for parents in terms of infection and whether the creche will still be open to provide for the education and care of their children.
We have a history in this country of some of the lowest levels of investment in the early years sector in the European context. That is quite telling in that many European countries were able to respond very quickly and provide outreach services and better supports for essential healthcare workers. There is a wider conversation that we all need to be having about the future direction of the early years sector and how we support it. However, there is also an anxiety among parents about what happens right now. Many of them feel that they are at breaking point and need those wider supports. One of the things we need to do is try to find some creative approaches. The last time we met, other Deputies addressed the issue of State indemnity for the outreach scheme, which would have helped address some of the concerns. Looking at a wider pool of parents and families could also have addressed some of the current concerns of providers. On the Minister's ideas of the pods in centre-based schemes when those providers open up, has her Department had any links with the Department of Education and Skills? The schools are sitting empty. If there is a limit to the number of children and staff who can be in a physical space, providing an extra space on a temporary basis, when many such spaces are already accessible to the State in the form of primary schools that are sitting empty and not being used, that kind of thing could support the phased roll-out and could allow for greater provision at that stage. Certainly a primary school would have more room for social distancing than a typical creche. The other question that was raised with me was whether there is a plan B. If the services are not there when we go to exit lockdown, what is going to happen? That uncertainty is feeding a lot of people. One person quipped that they felt there was no plan A after the cancellation of the service. Is there a plan B if we get to phases 3, 4 and 5 and the service providers are not there?
I also want to ask about child protection and Tusla. There has been a fall in referrals and, as lockdown ends, many of those protective people are going to start coming back into the children's lives. At that point, we will see a surge in referrals to Tusla. Is Tusla ready for that? Do we need to put extra staff in? Are they thinking about moving staff, even temporarily, to duty teams? Is that part of our thinking on moving out of the lockdown? It is entirely predictable that there will be a surge in referrals. Some students were in contact with me, as I am sure they were with other Deputies, on having their social work placements cancelled and the difficulties they were having with the Health and Social Care Professionals Council, CORU, in terms of registration and adequate hours. Tusla has been creative and has responded very well to the small number of students. It has reached out to them and found a way that will work for everyone to enable these students to finish their placement while also working supporting Tusla. This is great and Tusla should get a pat on the back for it. However, it does not work for students who do not want to work for Tusla, which is quite a lot of them. Can we do something else for this group of students who are having difficulties with registration because of Covid-19? Has Tusla had any contact with the unions on pay and conditions of the students on its scheme?
To pick up on something the Minister said in her speech, she said there is a view from multiple sources and reviews that support a conclusion that Covid-19 infection in children appears to be no more frequent and perhaps less frequent. I am struck by this in the context of Deputy Whitmore's very valid point the last time we met, when she spoke about the language we use around children, the language of vectors and super-spreaders. It seems that language and those contentions have not held up. It really underlines the point Deputy Whitmore made that we need to be very careful in the language we use around children.
I thank Deputy Costello for those excellent questions, some of which others also raised with me. One of the Deputy's primary questions relates to whether the Government recognises the stress that parents are under because of the double or triple-jobbing. This Minister does and my colleagues do too. We are particularly aware of it because the schools remain closed. School is where many children spend the majority of their time, and the others spend time in childcare centres. In general, most children spend more time in schools than in childcare centres. We are aware of the pressure that exists. We are all aware that one of the reasons for this measure is that it is the public health advice and is what we have all agreed to follow. We are now in the process of reopening society, which includes, effectively, our early years education and care and our school-age childcare and education, although we happen to be first. We understand.
On the question of what resources are available while we wait for this, my Department has done work in respect of supporting parents and in other areas. We have launched a website by means of which we offer free online resources to parents. More than 2,850 users have visited the site since its launch. There is an ongoing social media campaign that contains practical advice and support for parents. There is a whole-of-Government approach, Let's Play Ireland, that promotes the importance of play. There are lots of supports, including a web page and other online resources for parents. Certain aspects of some of our web pages offer support for parents who are working at home with very young children who have not been able to go to preschool. I assure Deputy Costello that generally we are aware of the issue, most people are parents themselves, and those are the kinds of supports that have been put in.
The pods plan, which was also raised by Deputy Aindrias Moynihan, was based on advice given to us by the public health expert. It is not something that I am saying, it is the public health expert saying that.
I will accept an apology any day from Deputy Connolly.
I want to bring the Minister back to practicalities. I have been meeting parents in Limerick. Ironically, while access to childcare is certainly having a huge impact on front-line workers, for many of parents who are not able to work because of Covid-19, their children are at home and so their demand for childcare is not as it would normally be. It will be shortly. There is a road map for reopening different sectors. As that happens, parents will require childcare services. What level of due diligence and comprehensive planning is the Minister doing to dovetail the reopening of facilities in line with the road map and the reopening of businesses, taking into account social distancing, which is the key element in the context of how we now operate? We must prepare for this as a matter of urgency. The Minister stated that she had three meetings in the past week. We are aware from parents of the pressures they are under. As we try to reopen the economy, we want people to be able to get back to work and they must have adequate childcare services available to them. Perhaps the Minister will provide an idea of the time frame in this regard, the type of due diligence she is carrying out to ensure that it is robust and her interaction with the various stakeholders. This is a matter of serious concern for parents in Limerick and north Tipperary. I want the measures to be pre-emptive rather than reactive. Will the Minister please give me an idea of the position in that regard immediately?
The Minister might respond to that within my time.
When there is a reopening, the centres will invite in fewer children than they initially are able to care for. That is the reality in light of the public health restrictions we are operating under. I am sorry about that, as I am sure we all are, but my hope is that a reopening will begin then and we are planning intensively for that. There will be fewer children and, as I said before, the schools will not be open. We are still finalising the issues with staff-to-child ratios, the space that is required in premises and whether they need to change it or whether they need more than they had before, etc. Those are the things we are looking at. They are the key things for which we need to have the public health advice finalised so that we can then start making decisions in that regard and plan further. Those are some of the priorities and that is what is happening.
It is a phased approach, given that we are within the public health restrictions. We start with a little bit, and we move on and get more and more. It will not be until July that we say it will be open for everyone but the capacity will nonetheless be lower than it was before. The demand may also be less, which we are aware of.
We are now one month and a half away from July. We should be looking to see what is the additional space that service providers need and whether we will need to put in place supports to enable them to rent additional space. I am hearing that from providers and across sectors, and reality has to be faced. With due respect to the Minister, saying we will see what happens in July and that we will let it be a kind of pilot is, unfortunately, not good enough. We need to be pre-emptive.
It sounded like I was saying that but I was not saying that. I understand we need to be pre-emptive and that we need to plan for it. It is absolutely something we are considering if additional spaces are required. More support will be required. My point is that we will first have to see how people use the space they have.
I begin by thanking the Minister, as a former Senator and Deputy, for her vocation and her political and social leadership. She has been a vision for equality and social change and has fought hard to reduce poverty. It has been very difficult for Ministers who lost their seats to carry on so I thank her very much.
I agree with other Deputies who spoke about mental health and young people. It is a deeply concerning area, and while I acknowledge that the Minister has addressed it, I want to share in the thoughts of many of my colleagues in the House.
Many of my constituents have talked about the SIPTU childcare model. It is a big start to be introduced by the next Government. I refer to a public model for childcare and high quality, affordable early years and school-age services. Will the Minister share her thoughts on the proposal?
I thank the Deputy for his kind comments. I am very familiar with the campaign and am happy to share my thoughts on it. I am on record as saying that, from a personal perspective, I would be in favour of a public model. I am aware, from working with my Department over the years, that the model - if this is what the Deputy means - would cost approximately €2 billion to €3 billion more than what we are currently investing in the education sector.
I am aware of that and, therefore, as Minister I established an independent expert group to examine, on the basis of an increase in public resources, what would be the best public funding model to develop to provide for our children in a way that is genuinely more affordable, while maintaining high quality. This would also make the sector better for the professionals and practitioners who work in it. It so happens that this group has been meeting in recent days. It started its work a number of months ago. Many of its members are from abroad but as of yesterday they were still in town. The group is continuing to plan. If there is a Government that wants to do that the next time around, we have begun the plans already. Norway and the Nordic countries have public moneys and there is some public provision, which means public servants are involved. There is also some private provision. That is called a mixed model and in my view we should aim for that model. We also have to consider that we have 4,500 private providers in the country, between not-for-profit providers and for-profit providers. We will need to move away from private providers if we want a full public model. That is one of the challenges. There are also challenges around increased investment. That is why we needed some good guidance and to see how it is done in other places.
Deputy Funchion asked about moving to the next reopening phase. Hopefully we can just have one scheme for that reopening, even if it is over different phases. There will be an acknowledgement of the need for significantly increased investment, even in that period of time as we move to a new normal. I am not promising that there will be €2 billion available. I do not believe there will be but I have nothing to do with what happens next. I know that conversations are taking place around this and perhaps Deputy Rabbitte could tell us more about them. Perhaps there will be an acknowledgement from the new Government that significantly increased investment is required, not just to provide the same level of care to fewer children as we phase through the reopening, but to learn from some of the things we did in the temporary wage subsidy scheme.
I will start with the quality of life issues facing working parents, particularly working mothers, for whom childcare has become a crucial issue. We have the first research findings from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, on the adverse effect it is having on working women in particular. The CSO press statement on the employment and life effects of COVID-19 survey published on 13 May states:
It found that more women ... than men ... are caring for a dependent family member or friend because of the COVID-19 crisis. It also found that women are more likely to report childcare issues related to the COVID-19 crisis ... and women are finding it more difficult to work from home because of family being around.
We now have an evidence base to show this pandemic is having an adverse effect on working women in particular. I said this the last time I stood in the Chamber to speak to the Minister and I am saying it again today. In the intervening period, a milestone was missed. We had much expectation about this milestone being reached but it was missed. It is pertinent for us to ask why it has been missed. If there is a certain amount of scepticism about the next milestone being reached, that would be understandable by any objective analysis.
I seek a cast iron guarantee from the Government and the Minister that the next phase of this scheme will proceed on 29 June. If the Minister can give us that guarantee, will she also indicate, given that phase 1 for essential workers was missed, whether there are plans to put in place a revised scheme for the period until 29 June? Is work ongoing to devise a scheme for those who were missed in phase 1?
That is the first question. I will take the answer now, if I may, please.
Sure. The Deputy referred to the evidence base for working women. I thank him for raising the research in the Chamber. It is really important to put it on the record and to remind ourselves about it. The Deputy will respect that I am aware of it. I have done a lot of work over many years to ensure and call for supports for women who may have taken on more of the responsibilities for caring, not just for children but also for parents and so on, while working and wanting to move on in the world of work. I acknowledge that. In light of the pandemic, stress has increased, especially for women.
As I have already said, the process concerning the representation of the advisory group was determined by a subgroup of the early years forum, which is a wider group. The Deputy could respect the principle that it chooses the representation. That is the first point. The second is that I will be including the organisation in the reference group in order to have additional consultation with it and others.
The Minister referred to the Norwegian model in connection with the next phase of opening up. There is no reference in her speech to floor space. This will be crucial to the operation of any model because it will have an impact on the number of children who can be catered for at any given time. Regarding full-time provision for children between zero and six years, I understand the floor space is anywhere from 3.5 sq. m per child to 2.3 sq m. per child. Under the Danish model, on which I have information, the area is anywhere from 4 sq. m to 6 sq. m. The regulations associated with the Norwegian model state: "The indicative norm for indoor play area is 4m² per child over 3 years old and approximately 0.33m² for a child under three." I want to tease out with the Minister the issue that has been raised by other speakers in respect of the capacity of providers to provide highly regulated early years childcare in the new paradigm we are facing in a way that ensures every child gets a chance and that none is left behind, and that there is no lottery system for children and their parents in regard to provision. If necessary, will an increase in capacity be sought beyond the providers, or will the providers be allowed to rent or be subsidised for seeking extra space? What is the internal advice to the Minister from her officials on the permutations for the provision of space and the regulations at present?
I hear two questions from the Deputy, the first concerning the determination of the space required in the current pandemic. That is influenced by public health advice. It is something I discussed with Professor Cormican. He is going to continue to advise us on that. I am going to bring him in to the group. Ultimately, we are going to decide the appropriate amount, with reference to Norway and other locations. That is the way that is going to be done. Once that is decided, we will have a better sense of what is required in terms of ongoing capacity with a view to providing for the number of children who required capacity before the pandemic, at the very least, and to growing that capacity.
My final intervention relates to insurance. I seek a clarification from the Minister on the statement I understand she made to the effect that Allianz is providing 95% of the insurance cover in this area at present and that Covid-19, or the risk of it, does not arise. I may have misinterpreted what she said. I just want further clarity as to who exactly she or her officials are talking. Is it an umbrella body or is she talking to specific insurance providers. If it is the latter, to which providers is she talking?
We have been in contact with Allianz. As the Deputy is aware, Allianz provides the insurance to childcare providers so we do not have that kind of interference. At the same time, I am aware of the fact that there is no Covid-19 exclusion, but this is subject to the following of the public health guidance and advice coming out regarding centre-based childcare.
If I may, I will ask one question initially and get a response to it and then ask further questions. I wish to ask about the transition task force, an issue I raised with the Minister two weeks ago. I put forward the proposal that the Department bring together all the key Departments and the NGOs to look at how we can transition our children and young adults back into both their school communities and the general community. A cross-departmental approach has to be taken on this, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will be the key Department to bring those bodies and Departments together to do it. The Minister said at the time that she was open to that suggestion. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, informed Deputy Shortall that he was also open to considering it. Has there been any progress in this regard? Will the Minister provide an update on the matter?
I have certainly put that request in for them to consider it. I will have to get some information as to whether they have been able to do it. I think their primary focus right now, though, is on the reopening on 29 June.
I am pleased to hear that the Minister has put the request in. It is a matter of urgency because time is going very quickly and a lot of planning would need to happen before we can make sure we have the supports for those children in place when they need them.
On the issue of insurance, I echo the concerns and frustration of other Deputies and of parents and front-line workers who will not have access now to the outreach childcare scheme that had been mooted two weeks ago. It would appear that insurance is, or at the time was, one of the main issues raised as a barrier to that scheme functioning. The Minister says she has spoken to Allianz and that it has committed that it will provide cover to in situchildcare providers as long as the public health guidance is adhered to. Why was there an issue with the outreach scheme? That too was in adherence with the public health advice. If Allianz considers that there was an issue in adhering to that and a risk associated with people adhering to that advice when it was happening in people's homes, why now has there been a shift such that Allianz will now consider the public health advice as the key determinant in whether or not there is a risk associated with providing childcare?
One aspect of this has been disappointing because there was considerable expectation about the outreach childcare provision. I wonder whether the fact that the State did not take the option to indemnify was really the nail in the coffin for that programme. I know the Minister raised the matter with the Department. What were the main challenges raised by officials when the Minister spoke to them about it?
The other main barrier to the outreach scheme seems to be possible virus transmission. Obviously, the health and safety of children and childcare workers needs to be paramount in the establishment of any of these schemes. The Minister referred today to a pod approach. Is that based on advice put forward by the National Public Health Emergency Team? Will the Minister publish the advice? It is important to have some transparency and clarity for childcare providers and parents in the context of what that advice will mean for them.
Yesterday in the Dáil concern was expressed about the amount of time people were spending in the Chamber. The expectation is now that we can only spend two hours in this huge space when we are all socially distanced from one another. How are we going to move to a position where children will be in the company of one adult childminder, even in a pod situation? How can they be in that space for longer than two hours at a time? Has that issue been considered?
What are the testing arrangements? Has consideration been given to the testing arrangements that need to be in place for the sector? I specifically have in mind arrangements to support the new childcare measures that the Minister has spoken of. That would give additional confidence to workers and parents.
The physical health of children and childcare workers must be one of the fundamental blocks in setting up any new childcare scheme. However, one thing becoming apparent as we move though this crisis is how, for children in particular, emotional health and well-being needs are as important as physical health considerations. Many of us have seen images online of children in playgrounds standing in little square boxes marked out on the ground. They are kept at a distance from all their friends. As a parent, I find those images rather upsetting. There has also been discussion in the media recently about how, in any childcare service that we implement, children may not be allowed to bring comfort toys such as blankets and dodies to the crèche or preschool. These things are important to children and give them a sense of attachment to home. The Minister mentioned that children would be able to use the same toys on a daily basis when they are in childcare settings. Does that imply they will be unable to bring their dodie, blanket or favourite teddy bear into the crèche with them?
We need to focus not only on the physical health measures but also the potential for these to impact adversely on the developmental health of children in future. I have serious concerns about this. We need to ensure that we take emotional well-being and the developmental needs of children into consideration. The question is how we get the balance right between achieving physical safety and emotional safety. The key to getting the balance right is ensuring that we have the correct expertise feeding in to the advisory body. Currently, however, there is no expert on child development or child psychology on NPHET or its subgroups. What measures has the Minister taken to ensure that the emotional well-being of children has been taken into account in the NPHET decision-making processes? Is there an opportunity to include a child psychologist on the team? The list of people at the moment includes immunologists and general practitioners. It is all very much at the medical end of things. We need someone in place who will speak up for the mental health of children as we move forward.
There have been renewed reports in the media of shops that are banning children from entering, despite all the advice. This sends out such a negative connotation to children and makes it really difficult for one-parent families to do simple things like shopping. Will the Minister make a statement and give clear guidance to retailers on that?
It is unfortunate that we have got to a place where those bans have been put in place and we need retailers to revise them.
Will the Minister make public the Crowe Horwath report on the cost of providing childcare, which was meant to be released late last year? It would be good to have that released as soon as possible.
I thank the Deputy for those questions. I will answer a couple in the time now but we can feed back some more to her. The Deputy raised questions of what happens with children in centre-based settings when those facilities reopen, both from a public health perspective and a child centre perspective. There were questions around toys, pods etc. Let me be clear about this. I am receiving direct advice from Professor Cormican, who has been offered to us by the Department of Health because of his expertise in infection control and other issues. It is not the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, per se. We had terrific initial conversations with him and that will ultimately lead to written advice that our advisory group will consider. Ultimately, as well as looking at the way other international settings have acted, we will have published guidelines for everyone for the reopening. We are aware that needs to be done in a timely fashion.
The Deputy's last point concerned balancing children's mental well-being with physical safety and Professor Cormican has that in his considerations. I expect that once we get something in draft form, I will bring it to some of the other experts with whom we have been in consultation for them to have a look at it.
Is mór an náire é don Rialtas seo gur theip air cúram leanaí a sholáthair dár n-oibrithe sláinte i lár na paindéime seo. The failure of the State the Government to provide basic childcare for our front-line workers, particularly nurses and doctors in the middle of this pandemic, is breathtaking. After eight weeks of spin and public relations management - two months in which the problem was recognised - there has been an abject failure to deliver any kind of childcare for those on the front line. This is because we have a hopelessly fragmented and complex system of preschool childcare and a hopelessly inadequate and equally fragmented system of after-school childcare. We have multiple schemes with the burden of cost shouldered mostly by parents in a sector with many large and small private providers employing dedicated but low-paid staff, often on precarious contracts.
There is little or any attempt to have oversight or attempt to ensure universality in terms of working conditions and standards across the sector. It is a fragmented system of childcare in which the State has absolved itself of responsibility and has overseen a largely privatised system growing in response to the needs of working people. As with many issues, this failure stems from a wider failure of this State to provide for universal care. We have seen it in nursing homes, our hospital system and direct provision, where we contract and subcontract the care and needs of key public services. We can thank consecutive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil-led Governments for this move towards neoliberal privatisation.
I suggest this failure is not about public liability insurance, although it may form an element of it. It is not just about the lack of uptake from childcare workers, although how it was not possible for the State to provide rewarding terms for those workers is beyond me. It is a wider and systemic failure, and this pandemic is revealing much about how normal privatised and neoliberal models that let us down in normal times have become massive roadblocks in the middle of a crisis like this pandemic. We have ended up firefighting the symptoms and, so far, we are failing in the childcare area.
The only real question I want the Minister to address relates to the demand from nurses' unions and others for the €4.2 million per week of the defunct scheme that she mentioned to be transferred to front-line workers to compensate them for the money they have paid, and will continue paying, for childcare because the State has failed to provide it. I support that demand. Will the Minister? If there is €4.2 million to provide for the care of front-line workers' children, why can it not be transferred into the pockets of workers and doctors, many of whom we know from their evidence are paying hundreds of euro per week to have their kids minded while they go to work for our sakes?
Exactly. There were one or two options that I might have suggested subsequent to the in-house model not being taken up for the reasons I have outlined. They would have attempted to make some kind of support available to healthcare workers. They were not accepted, so we are moving towards the phased reopening on 29 June. That is as honest as I can be with the Deputy.
Although we develop schemes, we do so in the context of ongoing work and consultation with a cross-departmental group, including the Departments of the Taoiseach, Public Expenditure and Reform and Health as well as the HSE. It works on everything related to Covid, as the Deputy is aware. Anything that has been developed, including in childcare, in the Covid context goes for conversation and deliberation by that group first before coming to the Cabinet.
I have a few specific questions, so we might do this in the form of question and answer, question and answer, etc.
My first question is on childcare workers in the informal sector. It is estimated that there are approximately 35,000 non-crèche childminders, many of whom work out of their own homes or the homes of the children they are minding. They are not well paid, but unless they had another job in the formal economy, they have not been able to access the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. They are low-paid workers, and that income has now been taken away from them. Does the Minister agree that we need to find a way for them to access State supports, for example, the PUP?
I thank the Minister. I wish to ask about the availability of primary care facilities, particularly for children, and raise the example of a campaign that I presume the Minister is aware of, that being, the active and long-running campaign for a primary care centre in Fettercairn. Despite having approximately 7,500 residents, Fettercairn incredibly does not have a single GP. That has real consequences for the health of everyone in the area, but children in particular. Does the Minister agree that communities like Fettercairn's need access to GPs and primary care for the benefit of everyone, particularly children?
I wish to ask about a report that the Minister might have seen and on which the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has provided answers to parliamentary questions. It relates to private clinics in the new national children's hospital. The proposal seems to be that, despite everything that we have gone through in recent months, there will still be private clinics operating out of the hospital. Is the Minister not concerned that this points to children's access to healthcare being rationed on the basis of their parents' income or wealth as opposed to the children's need?
Would the Minister not agree, in the context of the need to move forward rather than backwards towards a national health service, that all of the facilities in the national children's hospital should be used to provide healthcare for those who need it? In other words, it should be organised on the basis of need with proper quality healthcare for all of the children who need it regardless of the income or wealth of their parents.
I wish the Minister well in her future, whatever that may be. I am sure it will be such that we will come across one another again.
Throughout this crisis many parents and families in Wexford have expressed to me just how they truly miss daily interactions with their childcare centres. They have expressed huge regard and respect for the profession, valuing these relationships as an integral part of their family. The failure of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to provide a set of clear guidelines such that the childcare providers, be they public or private, can decide on reopening is somewhat deplorable. There is grave concern in the sector that it is being taken for granted by the Department, leaving it vulnerable by such lack of preparedness.
We are in the midst of phase 1 of the reopening and childcare providers are unable to reassure parents and families as to how they will deliver care for their children in the weeks ahead. They cannot inform their staff as to whether or not they are going to returning to work. They need a clear, coherent plan for the reopening of the childcare sector. Government needs to show a real sense of urgency as the provision of childcare is the backbone to many in the workforce being able to return to work. I am calling on the Minister to undertake in the next week to provide a clear protocol and set of guidelines to the childcare sector that guarantees a strategy for reopening and will ensure the health and safety of all involved.
I can guarantee that we will have the protocols and clear guidelines but I do not think it will happen in the next week. It is one of the key matters on which I am working with my officials and the advisory group, which will be followed by wider forms of consultation.
I thank the Minister. I must beg to differ with her on an issue already broached with her by some of my colleagues, namely, the advisory group and the acceptance of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers. The issue here is that none of my Wexford constituent providers was contacted in regard to who should join the advisory group. The Minister will find that Seas Suas which, I am informed, has 103 members is partaking in the advisory group. Leaving out the federation which represents some 1,400 members will not result in reflecting what the providers require. I would caution the Minister that this could turn out to be another fiasco, as happened with regard to what was supposed to be provided for front-line workers. I ask the Minister to reconsider that.
Can the Minister tell us why early childhood providers have been excluded? The Minister said they were informed by the sector in regard to representation. Wexford constituency providers are telling me they were not consulted. I ask the Minister to, if she can, tell the House why they were excluded.
Much of my presentation over the past hour and a half has tried to point out why that is the case and that we are operating within strict parameters of public health advice. Second, I believe I have already answered the Deputy's question a couple of times. Over the course of the past four years, since I have been Minister, we established an early years forum. That forum, and a sub-group within it, got together and recommended who would be on the advisory group, and that is who is on the advisory group. The Federation of Early Childhood Providers is not the only group that feels it has been excluded by its own peers. As I indicated, I am setting up a reference group in order to get more representation, consult with people and try to do the best job possible. I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that within the time frame we face and also in terms of the general process of designing things that need consultation, one can never consult with absolutely every single person.
What the Minister said originally was that the sector picked the advisory group. She is now telling us that the advisory group was picked from some section that was already there advising Government, which means the Federation of Early Childhood Providers was never considered in the first place. What is important and what I would like the Minister to note, particularly on behalf of providers in Wexford, is that there are 1,400 members of the federation. If the Minister wants her plan to reflect the requirements and have it accepted, I really think she should reconsider the federation, not as part of the subset but as part of the advisory group. Will she give that commitment?
The Deputy will be aware from the way I have already answered the question that I do not agree with her assessment of the situation. I have indicated that I will be hearing directly from the federation and others in the context of the reference group. That is my commitment.
I will have to write to the Minister to seek to have this matter clarified in writing. There certainly seems to be some consternation about why this particular group is being excluded.
Early childcare providers and educators play an important role in children's development and provide valuable support for families and young children, particularly those in the access and inclusion model, AIM, support scheme. Our most vulnerable children depend on these services but were effectively abandoned by the State when funding was withdrawn during the Covid-19 emergency. It is essential that we ensure the right standard of care for these children. Continuity of care lies squarely with the State, not the providers, if funding is withdrawn. Financial intervention by the State must be guaranteed as part of the recovery strategy to ensure as many parents as possible can return to work. Can the Minister inform the House of what funding she has sought to ensure continuity of service will be provided and if she has received confirmation of that funding being granted by the Department of Finance?
Yes, when the phased reopening of the childcare centres begins to take place, there will be plans in place to identify how to support children with disabilities. We need to consider that in the process of moving forward and it will be part of the plans we are devising.
I thank the Minister. The many Wexford childcare providers I have been in touch with have all voiced their concern as to the overbearing administration of the multiple-agency inspection framework.
A bigger concern is the speculation that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs may be abolished by a new Government at a time when the sector requires a comprehensive streamlining of the inspection framework. Will the Minister inform the House of the Department's intentions regarding a streamlined process, if and when that might happen?
Before I begin, I thank the Minister for her responses and those of her staff working in her office concerning questions I raised last week.
I begin by noting that the advisory group on the reopening of early learning and care and school-age childcare services met last Friday, 15 May, and that the Department is continuing to make preparations for the phased reopening of childcare services in line with the Government's Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business. As I understand it, six sectoral representatives, nominated by the sector, participated in the group. Despite such intense collaboration and wide-ranging consultation, how is that the availability of childcare facilities for front-line workers has still not materialised?
I will explore that question further. Many Members would have been supportive of the decision to roll out that service, but it appears that a roadblock around insurance and State indemnity has been the rock on which this scheme perished. If that is the case, why was there no representative from the insurance sector on the advisory board? Was the sector asked to participate and did it refuse to take part? It is something on which I would like clarity.
From what I and other Members can see, the insurance sector has been nothing but obstructive in the entire process of getting us back to normality. Not alone is that confined to the childcare sector, the insurance companies have also been extremely obstructive regarding businesses. I have raised that point here. It is absolutely outrageous that this has been allowed to continue. Having said that, however, it is also clear that responsibility for some of the confusion around the roll-out of childcare services can be put down to the lack of communication by the Department. That is certainly the sentiment being expressed by the childcare representatives on the ground. Despite the composition of the advisory group, they feel that clarity on what exactly is happening is not reaching the providers.
Turning to a different matter, the Minister might provide me with an update on the work of the school meals programme. As I understand it, the Minister's Department, in conjunction with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Education and Science, has devised updated guidelines for 1,580 schools and organisations in the programme. What has been the feedback from Tusla's education support service, which I understand is communicating with all home school community liaison co-ordinators and school completion programmes on this issue?
My final question concerns family resource centres. I know they are experiencing some service pressures regarding funding and their wish to increase staffing levels. Will the Minister please clarify if she has engaged with the family resource centres and outline how she proposes to respond to the challenges this sector is experiencing?
On the Deputy's first question regarding insurance, it is my understanding that following discussions with the providers regarding the model for potentially insuring the homes of healthcare workers, the insurance companies decided not to do that. One of the primary reasons was that the profile of the children being cared for was shifting. The profile of the children in their original and current insurance plan is the diverse groups of kids who come into the centres. The profile of these children would be that of healthcare workers and the risk, therefore, would be higher.
That was one of the primary reasons offered. I wish to focus on the fact that there are ongoing conversations with my officials and providers in respect of insurers and that insurance cover will be provided for a return to the centre-based model, which is extremely helpful.
On the Deputy's comments regarding a lack of communication and so on, as we move towards the new scheme, my Department and I are communicating directly with providers via email. In the past week, in planning for that scheme-----
I thank the Minister for taking questions. It would have been very easy for her to walk away.
On maternity leave, does the Minister support the extension of maternity leave? That proposal has been raised with me and almost 20,000 people have signed a petition in support of it.
There is very little information or guidance on how crèches and childcare facilities are to reopen. Will numbers be reduced? Is social distancing being suggested for children under five years of age? If centres open with reduced capacity, will they get increased funding such that they can remain open? These businesses understand that they will have to make changes, but they have not been given clear and proper guidance in order that they can prepare.
The lack of childcare for front-line staff has been raised repeatedly. It is simply not good enough and must not continue. Many of the problems arise from the lack of consultation with childcare facilities. I thank the Minister and hope she will be able to provide comprehensive answers to my questions.
Women who have been on maternity leave during the pandemic have not been able to have the same interaction with outside agencies and so on as was previously the case. Would the Minister consider allowing for maternity leave to be extended in light of events in recent months?
The second issue raised by the Deputy related to the need for guidance for the reopening of childcare centres. I completely agree with him in that regard. In my opening statement, I outlined and identified the process whereby my Department is developing such guidance in consultation with the sector. I understand the particular need for such guidelines based on public health advice and for the sector to have the opportunity to identify its questions on that advice, etc. The guidelines need to be developed and published prior to opening and that is what we are doing.
The Deputy raised the issue of social distancing. As stated earlier, social distancing is not a reality or a possibility for children. That has been confirmed by the public health advice we have received. There are procedures and guidelines with which adults and children will need to engage in order to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. Children already follow much of what will be in the guidelines while they are in childcare centres.
In terms of the reopening phase, there will be a prioritisation of essential workers. The other really helpful element in terms of the phased reopening of society will be childminders. My Department's recommendation is that childminders will again be able to mind children in the childminders' homes. I hope this will be accepted in the relatively near future by other Departments and by the Cabinet so that we can move forward in that regard. We need to have that additional support and supply for essential workers.
The cancellation of the healthcare workers childcare scheme is regrettable, not least because it is hugely inconvenient for the healthcare workers themselves. I have spoken to many providers about this and I get a sense that there has been a certain erosion of trust between the providers and the Department. The issue is consultation. People told me that a 17 page document arrived, it was a fait accompli and they just did not know what to do. There is real concern within the sector. One of the issues that arose is that many childcare workers work part-time rather than full-time and so could not provide the service. I am interested in something the Minister said a moment ago about childminders. One of the issues that was raised with me is that the workers in this sector see themselves as education providers and not childminders. I ask the Minister to address that point. I take on board the fact that the Minister has set up an advisory group and I acknowledge that a lot of good work is being done. However, I still think trust needs to be rebuilt.
I wish to ask about childcare providers signing up to the official contract to provide staff wages and about the €300 per week payment for sole traders. My information is that many providers, especially the smaller ones, have not signed up because initially it was really a blank contract. Does the Minister know how many providers have signed up and how many have not? While the €300 per week will tide sole traders over and people are grateful for it, there are significant extra costs involved in reopening. Does the Department have plans in place to support providers when they reopen? Will the pod system to which the Minister referred mean the number of children who can be cared for will have to be reduced? If so, who will bear the cost?
At present, 84% of providers have signed up. The scheme is still open to those who want to sign up. People have different reasons for not doing so but the number is really high, which demonstrates the success of the scheme in terms of meeting the sector's needs. Even though it is not necessarily all of what the sector had originally, it is still a significant support and the take-up is better than in most other sectors.
The Deputy asked about financial supports and guidelines for reopening.
We are aware of that and are factoring it in. No decisions have been made in terms of what that actually means and we have to first assess what would be the cost to the centres and so on. We are certainly aware that there are going to be costs associated with the reopening.
This is a phased reopening and we are in a pandemic. For both of those reasons, there will be a reduction in the number that are cared for in the centres, certainly initially. These are some of the real struggles and challenges right now in terms of how to prioritise, especially in terms of the initial reopening and, as we continue to grow, we will need to find ways to meet the demand. At present, we are not fully aware whether there will be the same demand as there was before the pandemic. This is why we have constructed and will be administering a survey of parents, on the one hand, and providers, on the other, to try to get some evidence to help us with those decisions.
I have three practical questions which I would like answered and I will then make some comments in regard to childcare. First, has Covid-19 interfered with the mother and baby homes report? Will it be published promptly and, if so, when? Second, has Tusla carried out a risk analysis on the effects of the closedown on child protection and, if so, has it produced a paper on that? Third, with regard to historical sexual abuse in scouting, there is no specific date for the learning review. It is now two months later. Has the Minister had any input since the report was produced? When did she see it and what is its status, given its horrific contents?
With regard to the mother and baby homes report, we have no information other than it will be delivered towards the end of June, which was the date originally agreed. I know Tusla has done a risk assessment and it has identified strategies in order to mitigate that. As to whether it has a paper, I do not know but I will find out and I will ensure the Deputy gets that information. With regard to Scouting Ireland, my officials saw the Ian Elliott report before it was published, although I cannot say exactly when.
I thank the Minister. I realise this is difficult and I thank the Minister for her professionalism in regard to how she is approaching this subject. However, I have to say I do not believe that childcare was given appropriate attention at the level of NPHET. Perhaps that was not its role but, certainly, when we look back on the minutes from 16 March, it comes up as an item under discussion and it is then pushed on to another date, but it does not appear. I went through the dates, which run from 16 to 31 March and on to 3 and 7 April. During that time, there was talk about essential workers, then talk about essential care workers and then it was to be kept under review and a paper was presented. I asked the Minister on the last occasion whether there is a copy of that paper that was presented and noted in the minutes because, surely, all the problems were identified. Perhaps the Minister will tell me before she finishes.
My point is that it is clear that what we need is public childcare. We need delivery of childcare by the State. The State did not do that and problems have been created. Of course, we always have to go in and pick up the pieces, for example, in regard to the nursing homes.
The problem in childcare has arisen for many reasons. I thank the Nevin Institute for a research paper which the Minister might get the Department to look at. The researcher, Dr. Lisa Wilson, has set out quite clearly that there is a misalignment between the road map for opening up and the absence of childcare facilities. Childcare did not appear in the road map published by the Government except to say crèches will open on a certain date in a very reduced manner. There is no policy intervention and no realisation of the extent of the service provided by childcare workers and families. The figures are very interesting. Approximately 50% of childcare is provided by families. This does not feature in any policy document. In 62% of those cases, the parents are full-time workers.
There are all sorts of interesting facts in the paper which have not featured anywhere in NPHET's work or in any Government policy statement. I am not blaming the Minister for this but it is time that we recognised childcare and grasped the opportunity that there should be a public care model. We should also realise the amount of unrecognised childcare work that families do. There is absolutely no recognition at Government level of the misalignment between opening up the economy and having no childcare provision. In addition, there is no recognition of the extent of the problem or the solution to the problem. It is very difficult for me, as a female Deputy, to look at this and, as I have said already, to cope with the kite that was flown that the Department would be abolished, just when it is learning what to do with regard to childcare and women. I thank the Minister for her honesty and professionalism. She has shown an honesty on these matters that was never there before.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. B'shin deireadh leis an díospóireacht leis an Aire Leanaí agus Gnóthaí Óige. Beimid ar ais i gceann 20 nóiméad agus beidh plé againn ansin leis an Aire Gnóthaí Fostaíochta agus Coimirce Sóisialaí. Gabhaim buíochas libh.