What do the new restrictions in Northern Ireland mean for access to childcare?

The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed a range of new restrictions to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The restrictions will last for a period of four weeks, starting on Friday 16 October at 6pm. The restrictions impact directly on the hospitality sector, which must close aside from deliveries and food takeaways, as well as contact services such as hairdressers and beauticians. There are also new rules for funerals, weddings and any group gatherings or events and for sport. People are also being told to work from home unless they are unable to do so, and to avoid all unnecessary travel. The full list of restrictions is available here.

Additionally, the half-term break will be extended for all schools which will close for two weeks from Monday 19 October, re-opening on Monday 2 November. As this is an extension of the half-term break, it is not intended to be used for remote learning, but the Minister has stated that individual schools can decide if they want to provide work for pupils during the closure. The Minister has also confirmed that direct payments will be made to pupils in receipt of Free School Meals during the week of 19 October.

What about access to childcare?

Details in relation to access to childcare at this time have been published on the Family Support NI website. In summary:

Formal childcare: Most registered childcare providers are not required to close as part of the new restrictions, meaning many parents will be able to continue to access the essential childcare they need through day nurseries, crèches or registered childminders. The Education Minister extended the requested closure of schools to any pre-school, childcare or youth provider based on school premises. The decision to allow the use of school premises, where a contract exists with a third party childcare provider, ultimately rests with the governing body of the individual school.

Informal childcare:  Informal childcare provided by friends or family within private homes can continue as the  household restrictions introduced on 22 September remain in place, and these permit the mixing of households for the purposes of providing childcare. (Note, informal childcare is care typically provided by grandparents and close family. It is not to be confused with unregistered childcare, which is provided by those who are not formally registered with a local HSC Trust but who charge a fee for their services. Unregistered childcare is not permitted at any time.)

Childcare providers continue to implement rigorous infection control measures, in line with revised guidance from the Department of Health. The full guidance is available on the Family Support NI website here.

For anyone who needs additional childcare over the next two weeks due to extended school closure, the Family Support NI website is an important resource for finding childcare in your area. For information on financial support you may be entitled to, you can call our Family Benefits Advice Service on Freephone 0800 028 3008.

Support needed for our vital childcare sector

Parents require access to childcare in order to work and, as experience from the past number of months has shown, this includes many parents who are working from home. During the extended period of half-term school closure and beyond, access to childcare remains vital. While it is welcome, therefore, that most providers have not been required to close, it is disappointing that some registered providers, which happen to operate from a school premises, may be unable to open for the two week school closure period – and the short notice given for this decision will add to the pressure on families and providers who are impacted.

It is clear that this remains a very challenging time for our essential childcare infrastructure. Providers, from day nurseries to childminders, may be experiencing temporary full or partial closure due to COVID-19, while others are continuing to experience a decline in occupancy – for example, where parents have lost their job, or seen their hours of work reduced as a result of the pandemic.

In order to secure the long-term sustainability of our vital childcare sector, the Government needs to build on previous support schemes which have played an important role in re-opening and initial recovery, to provide much needed financial assistance at this time, both to hard-pressed working families and to the childcare sector.

Our Family Benefits Advice Service offers advice and guidance on a wide range of childcare issues – to speak to one of our trained advisors, call 028 9267 8200 or email hello@employersforchildcare.org.