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 roadmap 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-----