I propose to take Questions Nos. 1020 and 1021 together.
On Friday 1 May, the Government released its Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, which sets out Ireland's plan for lifting COVID-19 restrictions through five phases. The re-opening of Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare (ELC and SAC) services will be guided by this framework and will be underpinned by the Government's Return to Work Safely Protocol, expert advice, available evidence and consultation with ELC and SAC stakeholder representatives and providers themselves.
Last Friday, 29 May, I announced a number of developments to assist childcare providers and parents plan for the reopening of services on June 29 as part of Phase 3 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business.
Expert guidance written specifically for the childcare sector has been provided by the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).
The guidance focuses on use of a “play pod” model. The “play pod” model restricts interactions between closed groups of children and adults as an alternative to social distancing, which is not possible with young children. Play pods should not overlap but a large room may contain more than one play-pod provided there are partitions that prevent physical contact between the play-pods and provided the layout complies with the Early Years Regulations and with fire safety requirements.
The purpose of ‘play-pods’ is to limit the number of people a child has contact with, to facilitate tracing, and to support close, positive interactions between children and their adult caregivers, like in a key-worker system. This system will also reduce the amount of contact adults have with each other.
The HPSC recommendation on use of play-pods is public health guidance for infection prevention and control during the COVID-19 pandemic. The HPSC guidance notes that separation of children into separate play-pods may not be relevant in small settings, where the children would in effect form one play-pod.
The regulatory adult-child ratios will remain unchanged and so services should continue to operate within them. Where possible, there should be two adults in a ‘play-pod’, to reduce the need for floating/relief staff. The HPSC guidance notes that floating staff members who provide relief during breaks will be essential but this should be limited as much as possible.
Services are now being asked to apply the guidance to their setting and determine what capacity they may offer. It is expected that a significant amount of capacity will be available in individual services that reopen in the summer, subject to, for example, their space, room layout and staffing availability. Whilst there are 4,500 Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare services in the country, fewer than 2,000 of these normally remain open in July and August.