Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: Family frustrated over NI key worker childcare scheme

child at nursery school Image copyright Getty
Image caption Mr Young says he and many other key workers could benefit from the scheme if it was opened up to them

A County Antrim man has criticised a Stormont daycare scheme for key workers, calling it “restrictive”.

Matthew Young, from Newtownabbey, is a shop steward in Larne Harbour where he works as a warehouse operative.

The NI scheme is run by the Departments of Education (DE) and Health (DH), but uses the health department's list of who is a key worker.

Under the Department of Health's list, Mr Young's son, Zachary, does not qualify for nursery care.

This is despite Mr Young qualifying as a key worker under the distribution category of the Department of Education's definition, if he was sending his son to a school.

A spokesperson said the Department of Health's definition was "more limited in scope... to ensure that childcare can be provided as safely as possible".

Zachary’s usual nursery is closed and Mr Young told BBC News NI that while his wife can work from home, doing that and looking after a small child can be a challenge.

“My wife has to put in substantial hours for her job as an accounts manager,” he said.

“There are businesses depending on her to deal with invoices and the wages of those who are furloughed and it is a lot of responsibility to do with a three-year-old in the house.”

Mr Young contacted Family Support NI (FSNI), a database of registered childcare run by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) for Northern Ireland, to try to find out why he could not access a nursery place.

He was told that the scheme was using the DH’s definition of a key worker but that it was under "constant review".

'We need assistance now'

“The FSNI list is restrictive. It is primarily public sector workers and excludes most of the private sector,” he said.

“I read the joint ministerial announcement which said that if the demand was there, they may open it up.

“But how can there be demand if no one can apply – it doesn’t make sense?"

Mr Young said he knew of a number of people who are affected.

“My workplace is unable to furlough, except in extreme cases like if someone has an underlying health condition,” he said.

He said he knew of one worker who would normally work 09:00 to 17:00 BST, but because she cannot put her child into care, she is working 16:00 to 00:00.

“We are unable to furlough and facing economic and financial pressure, and, in this case, childcare, while having the risk of infection to Covid-19 facing us every day,” he said.

Image copyright Getty Creative/iStock

The NI Department of Health's definitions of a key worker are as follows:

  • Health and social care workers providing clinical care for those who have tested positive for Covid-19
  • Health and social care workers, social workers supporting life-threatening emergency work, as well as critical primary and community care provision, and safeguarding
  • All other health and social care workers, and wider public sector workers providing emergency/critical welfare services (e.g. PSNI/NIFRS/prison staff/social workers/teaching, non-teaching and support staff working in schools).

In a statement to BBC News NI, the Department of Health acknowledged the list being used was "more limited in scope than the lists of essential workers published by the UK government and Department of Education in NI".

"The reason for this is to ensure that childcare can be provided as safely as possible - both in terms of fewer families travelling to and from childcare settings, and social distancing guidance being applied to as great an extent as possible within a limited amount of space per setting," it said.

"This ultimately means fewer children being cared for in any one place."

The Department of Education said its key workers list "comprises key workers who are maintaining essential public services during the Covid-19 response".

"The definition of a key worker is flexible and dependant on the circumstance and requirements over the course of this critical period. There can be flexibility shown on the definition of key workers to ensure all those who need support receive it," a spokeswoman said.

Regional variations

Unite the Union said the NI scheme was "adversely affecting key workers across NI who are as important as those on the frontline" and called for the Northern Ireland Executive to extend the provisions of the scheme.

Regional secretary George Brash said those who work in sectors like transport, food, agriculture and retail were also keeping the country going.

"Private sector workers also need childcare in order to be able to attend work," he said

In England, the UK Department of Education provides guidance for childcare, colleges and school and uses the UK government's key worker list.

Scotland's guidance includes health and care workers, wider public sector workers and "all workers (private, public or third sector) without whom there could be a significant impact on Scotland".

In Wales, for the next two months, Welsh children aged under five whose parents work in professions that fall in the key worker category will be able to access free childcare.

This includes doctors, nurses, paramedics, social workers, those in food production, the police and fire services.

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