I thank members for the invitation to attend this afternoon's meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. I am joined by Ms Bernie McNally, Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks, Mr. Toby Wolfe and Mr. Mark Considine.
The closure of all centre based early learning services and most childminders from 12 March was necessary due to Covid-19, but it has had adverse effects on children as well as bringing major challenges for the sustainability of the sector. In dealing with this issue, the Department's primary concern has been to meet the needs of children and families and to do what is best for them. We also want to do all we possibly can to help sustain the early learning and care and school age childcare sector. We are conscious that, unlike schools, the State does not either own or almost fully fund this sector. In fact, public funding accounts for approximately 58% of childcare providers' income in what is essentially a private sector system. Parents account for the remaining 42% of income in a sector that has approximately 75% for-profit and 25% non-profit or community services.
We recognise that the sector operates in a very challenging environment with low pay and a high turnover of staff. The Department’s work to support the sector is focused on promoting high quality, affordable and accessible childcare.
When services closed in March we moved, as a first measure, to guarantee State funding through the existing early childhood care and education scheme and the national childcare scheme, which incorporates the older legacy schemes. These operated from 13 March until early April, by which time we introduced a temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme, operating to 28 June in conjunction with the corresponding Revenue scheme. This system has protected parents by guaranteeing no parental fees for participating providers for the duration of the scheme. It has also protected childcare workers by ensuring that up to 85% of them could retain their pre-Covid-19 income and maintain a relationship with their employer. This helped prevent losing them to unemployment and possibly not returning to their jobs. Our focus was on helping providers to maintain viability to the greatest possible extent. The result was that the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme supported just over 3,900 providers, which represents some 87% of the sector, and some 22,670 staff at an estimated cost of €77.3 million to the Department.
The Department has worked intensively with the sector on a plan for the phased reopening of childcare services from 29 June. We are grateful to the sector, including the members of an advisory group that has met once or twice every week since the middle of May, for the advices and collaborative perspectives they have offered. Again, our first concern was for the safety and welfare of children and staff. Critical to this was the public health guidance we received. We worked in collaboration with the Department of Health, the HSE and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre to ensure the sector was provided with expert guidance on how services could be managed when reopening and what arrangements and procedures were needed to minimise the risk from Covid-19 to children, families and staff.
Estimating likely demand for childcare services between 29 June and early September is a significant challenge. The planned reopening on 29 June occurs at a time of year when just 40% of services would normally be open. That is 1,800 out of approximately 4,500 providers. We are conscious that demand may be lower to start but may rise as parents seek to return to their own work and to more normal living and feel greater confidence regarding the safety of their children. However, compared to pre-Covid, demand this autumn may be lower because of job losses among parents or because of more flexible working that allows families to better balance caring and working responsibilities. Overall, we anticipate that demand for places will rise progressively over the summer and autumn but we are in uncharted waters this year and we cannot be definitive about uptake.
In turn, this brings challenges with regard to the type of funding model that stands the best chance of successfully supporting the sector in the weeks and months ahead. The Department developed, and the Government approved, a significant funding package for the period from 29 June to 23 August. At €75 million, it is more than two and a half times what we would have projected to spend in a normal year for this eight-week period. The Department’s written submission to the committee sets out the details of the funding package, comprising the Revenue temporary wage subsidy scheme, resumption of the Department’s existing funding schemes and two further supports: a reopening grant to the value of €18 million and a capital grant totalling €14.2 million, with a further fund of €375,000 for certain childminders.
We have sought to offer clear advice about the practicalities of reopening. We have developed a suite of guidance documents for providers, practitioners and parents and we are updating the website regularly as further guidance is developed. We have sector-specific advice on preparing to reopen, a health and safety checklist, and frequently asked questions for providers and practitioners as well as separate frequently asked question documents on reopening and on funding.
The Department is strongly committed to doing all we can to support early learning and care and school-aged childcare services in reopening. We believe it is vital that services can do so to the benefit of children and their families. Not all our efforts have been successful. The scheme of childcare for essential healthcare workers had to be cancelled because it was not possible to meet all of the requirements that would have made it attractive to providers. This underlines the difficulty of putting in place at short notice often complex measures that meet public health requirements and the concerns and needs of providers and parents. However, we have continued to work hard with the sector to do everything possible to make the reopening on 29 June a feasible proposition, again within the boundaries of where we must operate for the safety of children and staff.
We have worked closely with the Department of Education and Skills to support the transitions for children returning to services. The joint initiative, Let's Get Ready, which was launched on 15 June, seeks to help parents and children with the transitions for children returning to, or going to, preschool for the first time and for children moving from preschool to primary school.
More recently, our focus has been on getting ready for the first phase of reopening on 29 June. While it is difficult just yet to predict the situation that will apply after this initial eight-week period, we have commenced planning for the 2020-21 programme year, which we propose to start on 24 August. The Department will review demand and supply over the next few weeks and we will consult stakeholders before finalising the programme from August. We will seek to finalise these arrangements as quickly as possible, having analysed the outcome of the initial reopening phase in the coming weeks.
Finally, the committee may wish to note, regarding the wider development and improvement of early years services, that the European Commission, in its recent semester report on Ireland for 2019, has noted substantial progress in increasing access to affordable and quality childcare. There is much more to be done, and I am referring to this simply as an indication of the road travelled to date and the progress made from a low base in recent years. In the time available, I have highlighted some of the key points of importance to this issue. A much fuller and more detailed treatment of these matters is contained in the Department's written submission to the committee.