Coronavirus: Childcare key to unlocking the economy

By Richard Morgan
BBC News NI business reporter

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As moves are made to unlock the economy, concerns are being raised about access to childcare.

Under Stormont's five-phase plan to get business moving again no dates have been given for providers.

One organisation within the sector has said childcare is vital for our economic recovery.

The Department of Education said it and the Department of Health were "currently considering a number of childcare recovery options".

According to the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), about 350,000 workers in Northern Ireland have dependent children.

Its research suggests 70% of them are likely to have "intensive childcare requirements".

"This crisis has really highlighted how much our economy relies on care to function," Dr Lisa Wilson from NERI told BBC News NI.

"The roadmap proposals for how to ease out of lockdown put forward by the executive appear to have given no thought to the challenges presented by the misalignment between businesses reopening and access to childcare.

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image captionEmployers For Childcare has said it is dealing with parents on a daily basis who are concerned about accessing childcare places

"We really need to make plans to be able to allow people to continue to work in this crisis.

"We have to ensure workers are not faced with the option to leave the workforce," she said.

Similar concerns were raised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions at Stormont's economy committee.

The executive has announced a number of measures to ease Northern Ireland out of lockdown, including the reopening of some non-food retail stores.

A number of independent shop owners have told BBC News NI that they could open and implement social distancing, but they do not have childcare in place to facilitate the running of a business.

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image captionPeople can now shop at garden centres while maintaining social-distancing rules

Employers For Childcare has said it is dealing with parents on a daily basis who are concerned about accessing childcare places.

"Childcare is a vital infrastructure and helps parents get to work, and without access it is not possible to get back to work," policy and Information manager Aoife Hamilton said.

"Even where people continue to work from home, there's going to be childcare needs. It would be very challenging and it's not a situation anybody would be able to sustain over a longer period of time.

"We know that settings are keen to reopen and expand the service they can offer but we appreciate public health guidance has to be factored in and settings are not going to be able to operate at capacity for quite a period of time.

"There is a huge amount of work going on to support the sector and we don't want to see a cliff edge. There will be a risk that settings will be unable to reopen and the impact is going to be significant.

"If parents are unable to access childcare or it becomes unaffordable we are going to perpetuate more difficulties down the line."

Childcare a "key priority"

Further uncertainty lies ahead with the phased reopening of schools, which will require further changes to working and childcare arrangements.

Dr Lisa Wilson has said parents need to have access to flexible working requests

"There needs to be policy interventions so workers have access to flexible working requests and have that support to ensure they can stay attached to the labour force."

In a statement to BBC News NI, the Department of Education "acknowledged that as more workers return to work in other sectors, childcare provision will be a key priority".

"The departments of Education and Health are currently considering a number of childcare recovery options, in line with the Northern Ireland Executive's 5-stage plan, which in turn, will comply with medical and scientific advice," a spokesperson said.

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