I am pleased to be in the Dáil this afternoon to outline the measures the Department has taken to ensure the care and protection of our children and young people during this pandemic. I will begin by placing on the Dáil record my gratitude for the ways in which our children and young people have responded to what is happening in Ireland and in our world at this time. They have co-operated with the ways in which their lives have been restricted. They have responded with great care for their friends and the adults in their lives, especially their families. They have lifted our spirits with their innovative ways of minding our communities. For all of this and more I thank the children and young people of Ireland. Their courage and kindness leads us all on.
When childcare services closed on 12 March, the Department and I moved quickly to put in place the best possible supports for the childcare sector. Our key focus was to ensure that when we emerge from this crisis our childcare sector would be in the best shape possible to reopen. For those working in early learning and school-aged child care, the children they care for and educate, the parents and our economy, a functioning childcare infrastructure is critical. The sector is an extension of our education system. This has been recognised by the Government in approving significant bespoke supports for the sector. A sustainable functioning service needs to retain our early learning and childcare professionals. At a very early stage, we identified the need to ensure they could receive at least €350 per week to keep them with their employers so families would not lose them. I also introduced a measure to contribute towards the overheads of providers. In addition, the Department brought forward a proportion of the programme support payments to providers to assist with cashflow issues.
Every year, childcare services close. In the past three years, approximately 150 services a year have closed. In each of those years, new services opened and almost every year we had net additional capacity in the sector. As a result of increased investment, the average size of services has grown from 33 places in 2015 to 47 in 2019. During the months of March and April, Tusla was notified by seven services of their intention to close and we are monitoring this closely through our city and county childcare committees. I am hopeful the measures we have put in place will go a long way towards sustaining the majority of current services. On 5 May, 3,733 providers had signed up to the wage subsidy childcare scheme, which is 83% of our providers.
Our challenge is to hold as much of the current capacity as possible. I and the Department have worked consistently to keep all of our stakeholders updated on developments through ongoing consultations with individual providers and representative bodies. We are constantly updating our frequently asked questions and they are being updated again today. They now consist of 60 pages on the Department's website. I believe the introduction of the scheme was a relief for many parents who will not be requested to pay childcare fees or a contribution to childcare fees while services are closed. Through the scheme they will maintain their child's place when restrictions are lifted and so many of these parents are themselves struggling financially and worried about the future. They may lack certainty about whether their jobs are secure. They may be on the pandemic unemployment payment or the wage subsidy scheme in the hope they will return to work, and do not need the additional or impossible strain of having to pay childcare fees during this time.
Thankfully, we now have a roadmap for the future. As has been reiterated many times in the past few days, the speed at which we progress is dependent on our ability to control the spread of the virus.
From 18 May, my Department will oversee the provision of childcare in the homes of essential healthcare workers. This is part of the first phase of easing the Covid-19 restrictions. Tomorrow, we will invite registered childcare services to participate in this much-needed measure. I will also outline how families can access the scheme. Participation will be voluntary. Many services have expressed an interest in supporting this initiative and being part of Ireland's call during these challenging times. We have been planning this for a number of months and have listened to suggestions from the childcare sector. Yesterday, we had an extensive question and answer session with the early years forum. Based on current figures, we are planning for provision for 5,000 families. We estimate that the cost of the scheme will be in the region of €4.7 million per week. The majority of this cost will be borne by the State. There will be a shall parental contribution required of €90 per family per week. This will provide essential healthcare workers with 45 hours of childcare a week. We are recommending that childcare workers volunteering for the scheme are paid on average €15 per hour. As part of the scheme, we will also cover employer PRSI, leave accrual and any management and administrative overhead to providers. In the coming days, eligible health workers will be advised to contact a Pobal parent support centre to request the service and to indicate their childcare needs and preferences. It is initially intended to run the scheme for a period of four weeks. There will be a review after two weeks and also at the end of the four-week period. We have also commenced planning for phase three, which will see the phased reopening of crèches and preschools for the children of essential workers. This is the first step in the phased reopening of centre-based childcare.
It is inevitable that childcare services will not open at full capacity. Fewer children attending a childcare service will increase the cost of the provision of childcare for these children. As outlined previously, 70% of the costs of provision of childcare are related to pay costs. I do not anticipate that services will be in a position to absorb all of these costs. Parents will also be unable to pay the associated increase. I will be inputting into future Government decisions to make the case for the need for State subsidies to compensate. However, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the current State investment in childcare during the Covid-19 crisis. Prior to Covid-19, the State invested approximately €638 million per annum in early learning and care and school-age childcare services, and parents contributed approximately €400 million per annum in fees. Initial projections anticipated that the Department's temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme would cost on average approximately €6 million per week for the Department itself, subject to the level of scheme demand. This weekly cost, though, does not include the cost of the Revenue wage subsidy scheme on which the Department's scheme is built. The total estimated cost of State supports to early learning and care in school-age childcare during the Covid-19 crisis far exceeds the total State expenditure prior to the pandemic, and demonstrates my commitment, that of my Department and that of the Government towards the sector. Parents previously contributed approximately 40% of the sector's income and the State 60%. The new Government-wide package of measures for the sector, across the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Revenue and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, retains the State investment which was there previously and compensates for the loss of some of the parental income.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has called on the global community to build back better. We need to share that vision for the future of childcare. This will form the basis of the options that we are considering into the future. I held a meeting with the early years forum yesterday evening and committed to engaging with it on how we plan for the phased reopening. Our objective will be to continue to support as many services as possible and to retain as many educators as possible in the childcare sector.
Many providers are already exploring the design of the guidelines for reopening. We will welcome all suggestions and co-operation to guide and drive the safe reopening of services. Tusla has recommitted to a fair, reasonable and pragmatic approach to inspections for reopening. Consideration needs to be given to how children are prioritised for returning to childcare. This will be done in consultation with the sector. It is my hope that significant additional investment will be provided to the sector as it reopens. It seems to me to be the primary requirement to ensure that capacity will be sufficient for Irish families as the pandemic recedes. These decisions, however, are yours not mine. The road ahead will have twists and turns. We will work at it step by step and hand in hand with the sector. We all want to achieve the same goal. We can get there and I believe that we will get there.