Childcare had problems before the pandemic. Now it has many more.
Childcare in Northern Ireland is a half-formed thing.
Provision has long relied on the good work and good will of underpaid staff and under-supported providers. There has been plenty of both but that is not basis on which to run essential services and, as such, childcare has been expensive and inflexible for parents and a low-margin operation for providers.
Campaigners have been calling for systematic reform. In short, their position is that childcare is infrastructure and should be treated as such. The new NI Assembly had prioritised this as a major issue but, as with everything else, there was no time after the Assembly returned in January to draw up a strategy let alone implement one.
Instead, the pandemic took hold. And the pandemic has made everything worse.
Covid-19 has left many providers in an even more precarious position and, while they have been and are able to avail of governmental support schemes such as furloughing employees, for all settings getting up and running will be tricky.
This is a short-term and long-term problem. The impact on families, on society and on the economy could be huge.
When and how will settings re-open? How much childcare will be available, and how much harder will it be to find help in rural communities? How can the sector possibly make up the gap left by grandparents who, because of Covid-19, are no longer able to look after their children’s children?
If children cannot get looked after, at least one of their parents cannot go to work.
The economic and social impacts of this were significant before. Now they could be enormous.
The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) last week released a Research InBrief paper looking at problems facing the childcare sector in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and how these might impact on the rest of society.
Employment, dependent children and access to childcare during the Covid-19 crisis found issues with childcare could send a shockwave through any economic and social recovery.
“As businesses begin to reopen and workers are called back to work-picking up and going back to work is not going to be as easy or straightforward as it sounds on paper for workers with children.
“Little consideration however appears to have been given by Government to the misalignment between the reopening of many sectors of our economy whilst access to childcare remains so limited.
“This Research InBrief shows that a lack of access to childcare is likely to be a significant issue for a significant proportion of workers across the island of Ireland… High proportions of workers with dependent children also work in households where all adults in the household work.
“The challenges presented by the fact that access to childcare is currently so limited given the continuing closure of childcare facilities and public health restrictions which prevent physical interaction with the wider family circle is likely to be particularly intensive for these households.”
Northern Ireland is set to move out of lockdown on a phased basis. Different industries will go back to work at different times, therefore different parents will go back to work at different times.
Moreover, there is no clear timetable for re-opening childcare settings – and that’s before considering many are independent operations and many will have financial struggles – so it is very difficult to predict how exactly this will dovetail with the wider attempts at economic and social recovery, except to say it will be challenging.
“The Northern Ireland Executive’s roadmap out of lockdown does not mention when childcare facilities will begin to reopen - in fact, it does not mention childcare at all. When it comes to children the Executive’s focus is on schools only which it says will begin in Phase 2 to expand provision to cover a wider definition of key workers as workplace activity gradually increases.
“And whilst no dates are given as to when we might move between the various phases, by Phase 4 the plan is to expand provision to accommodate all pupils on a part time basis with a blended learning approach involving a combination of in school and remote learning to facilitate the continuing need for social distancing. Phase 5 would see early year school provision expanded to a full-time basis, subject to scientific and medical advice.”
NERI’s research found that “approximately 40% of all workers in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland have dependent children. In terms of numbers of workers, this equates to around 900,000 workers in the Republic of Ireland and around 350,000 workers in Northern Ireland… [Research also] shows that in Northern Ireland just over 72% of workers with dependent children under the age of 16 live in households where all adults in the household work.”
The childcare sector is vital. It is hard to dispute the idea that it is infrastructure. Stormont had good intentions following the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive. That bodes well for the long-term.
However, the pandemic got in the way of any change and the chronic lack of support for the childcare sector will hurt any recovery. Huge numbers of workers may not be able to return to employment when they are supposed to, poking all sorts of holes in what was already an arduous process.
A swiss-cheese economy will take much longer to get back up and running. The effects on individuals and families will be significant.
Thankfully, there is some hope. A £12m support package for childcare providers was announced earlier this month in a joint statement by the Education and Health ministers. Lots of wider assistance is available through organisations like Early Years and Employers for Childcare.
This will not be enough. As with everything else in the time of Covid-19, the situation is developing. The exact nature and extent of the problems faced by the childcare sector will both reveal themselves over time and change over time.
Further help and assistance will be needed. It is important that the value of childcare is properly recognised. Without that recognition, this crucial sector risks getting inadequate support.
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