I thank the committee for this opportunity. My name is Paula Donohoe. I am a private provider. I am a member of the national committee of the Association of Childhood Professionals and I am joined here today by Ms Marian Quinn, its chairperson. I will provide the committee with a brief summary of our Covid experience.
On 12 March, the word came through from An Taoiseach that we were to close our services at the end of that working day. In my case, and in that of many of my colleagues, the first we heard of this closure order was from parents arriving at our doors. It gave us no time for planning. That evening, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs wrote to providers and assured us that the closure was covered by force majeure so we would continue to be paid under the various fee subsidies schemes for the duration of the announced closure. However, with the closure of services, most providers were concerned about loss of parental fees and the resulting unsustainability of their services that endangered their ability to pay overheads, including staff wages.
What ensued amounted to an information vacuum that was filled with speculation, misinformation, media interpretation and generally unhelpful commentary. This had the natural effect of raising already heightened stress levels and communicating with our families and staff became difficult.
The announcement of the temporary wages subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme, TWSCS, on 25 March was welcomed by many providers because it allowed us to maintain contact with what we consider to be our most valuable asset, namely, our staff. An extra difficulty with this scheme was that sole traders were excluded from the TWSS, as were employees who were not on the payroll in January and February. A further challenge was that the TWSCS payment was sufficient for some providers, while others needed to take out micro-loans to cover non-deferrable overheads. Following the eventual issuing of the TWSCS funding agreement on 15 April, three weeks after the initial announcement, 85% of services signed up for the scheme. Time will tell how this support has helped us to remain viable.
Having overcome the funding and wage issues, the next milestone was phase 1 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business on 18 May and the provision of childcare for front-line healthcare staff. The issues with this failed scheme have been widely reported and it is accepted to have been a non-runner from the start. The issues relating to insurance and HR had been communicated in advance of the roll-out of the scheme. It has to be said that there was willingness on behalf of the providers and educators to provide such a service but not in the format it was being offered.
We then turned our focus to phase 3 and 29 June. Thankfully, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs heard the concerns of providers and agreed that it was more feasible to merge phases 3 and 4 and to open services to all families previously connected with our services. We are to prioritise families involved in essential work followed by those families with children with disabilities or from disadvantaged or vulnerable backgrounds. If we have further capacity, we can then roll it out to the remainder of families within our services.
The announcement of a capital grant and a reopening grant, to help offset the costs involved in reopening under the new play-pod model, is positive, as is the reinstatement of the funding schemes, coupled with the simplified version of the re-registration process. The announcement that the fee subsidy schemes were being reactivated offered a reassurance to our parent body and allayed many of its fears regarding the costs involved in childcare. However, the very late notification of the funding model – a mere 12 working days prior to reopening - caused the now familiar stress levels to rise, as again we worked in the dark, while trying to plan a reopening without knowing if it would be viable. The pod model of provision was first mooted on the floor of the Dáil Chamber on 20 May by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. We, the providers, educators and parents, had no clear idea how this was to work. This proved to be extremely confusing and still poses confusion among the professional and parent body alike. Thankfully, the Department has now provided useful supports for parents, providers and educators on the First 5 and Let's Get Ready websites.
In the childcare sector, we are used to working to stringent hygiene standards and are familiar with the risk analysis required to maintain a safe and hygienic environment. This is a regular part of our daily practice and is manageable with the proper supports in place. The additional Covid-19 health and safety requirements that must be implemented throughout our working day are a further responsibility for the staff team and will entail the need for supplementary staff over and above the regulatory requirements. Extra personnel will be required for: managing arrivals and departures; enhanced cleaning and; additional administration. The enhanced staff team may be possible for providers because of the TWSS being in place as between 70% and 85% of the wages will be covered under this scheme, leaving the smaller portion to be covered by the provider through fees and subsidies they receive.
The summer months are naturally a quieter period in most services and due to Covid-19 we would anticipate an even greater reduction in the demand for childcare. This should mean that we have staff available to cover this extra work. However, this assumes that we can afford to pay for these additional staff and that all our staff will be in a position to return to work. Some staff will experience difficulty returning due to family care needs and may have underlying health concerns of their own.