Regina Bushell: Covid will drag on unless we reclassify childcare professionals as key workers 

Ireland's economic recovery from the pandemic relies on workers in the early learning and childcare sector being moved up the vaccination priority list
Regina Bushell: Covid will drag on unless we reclassify childcare professionals as key workers 

Regina Bushell: Early learning is crucial to Ireland's recovery because it's a service that ensures other parts of the economy work as planned.

To parents of young children, it is self-evidently impossible to provide adequate levels of care and education in a home environment while simultaneously carrying out professional duties to a fully productive standard. 

This has been especially tough for healthcare and other key workers who are required to be physically present for their jobs, often at extremely short notice or unsociable hours.

Early learning and childcare is crucial to Ireland’s recovery: it is a frontline service that ensures other parts of the economy work as planned. 

While vaccines offer hope of that much-coveted return to normality, without an effective rollout plan, education and childcare settings could remain closed for the better part of the year or yo-yo between open and closed, which is arguably more inconvenient and disorienting. 

That means parents will stay stretched, and so long as that continues, economic output will lag, meaning Ireland’s Covid convalescence could last well into 2022.

There is a real danger of this happening. Childcare professionals, who are currently not considered “key”, are 11th in the Government’s 15-phase rollout plan, only marginally ahead of the general population. 

Seas Suas, the representative organisation for independent early education and childcare providers, which I chair, believes that the Government must urgently reclassify childcare professionals as key workers, which would place them in the sixth phase of the rollout.

Parents agree. According to a survey conducted on Monday by Amárach Research, 86% of parents with children under 12 years of age believe that childcare professionals should be classified as "key workers" in the Governments vaccination roll-out plan.

The survey found that 64% believe that childcare professionals should be classified as key workers because they are essential frontline workers in roles where social distancing is not an option in caring for children.

Reduce absences and closures

Vaccinating childcare professionals earlier than planned would protect them from Covid infection and reduce instances of mandatory close contact self-isolation, thereby reducing absences and full-scale business closures. 

Creating fully safe, fully operational childcare environments would allow parents and children to fall back into some semblance of structure and a routine and, once done at scale, spur on economic recovery.

Thankfully, the current vaccine rollout programme is not chiselled in stone. 

Last week, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly suggested the Government was in the process of reassessing phases four to seven now that there is predicted increased supply of the AstraZeneca jab.

While Mr Donnelly did not explicitly state that childcare workers would be reclassified and reprioritised, this sign of flexibility is welcome.

The original vaccination rollout programme was publicly announced in mid-December, before any vaccines were even approved and while childcare and schools were still fully open. 

The approval of multiple vaccines since then, and the evolution of the disease in Ireland since Christmas, requires that we reassess our plans in the light of new evidence and economic reality.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, because of its portability, is a game-changer. 

Once childcare professionals are vaccinated en masse, they can get back to work immediately, thereby providing the conditions for a nationwide reopening of education and childcare facilities. 

No new procedures or rules need to be drawn up: childcare was fully and safely reopened last summer, and childcare professionals are now experts in how to work safely and responsibly while protecting children and each other, even though social distancing is virtually impossible.

In fact, hundreds of carers and educators have been back on the frontline since the beginning of January, looking after vulnerable children and the children of doctors, nurses, and other higher-risk key and essential workers.

Classifying the education and childcare sector as essential would put us in line with a number of countries, including the United States, Germany, and Italy. 

There, teachers and childcare workers are deemed critical to the economy and society and have thus been prioritised for vaccination in the third group of their rollout programmes. 

Last weekend, former prime minister Tony Blair called for this approach to be adopted in the UK, where already one in five adults have received their first dose.

These are exceptional times. We are living through a once-in-a-century pandemic, and some degree of grit and sacrifice is required of everyone.

However, we are in the final stretch: we have vaccines and, with them, a way out of a miserable situation.

That final stretch can be made more bearable, and indeed  shorter, if we focus on protecting the key services that are fundamental to Ireland’s economy and society. 

By building up these services into a sort of supporting bedrock through priority vaccination, we can more quickly open up other sectors.

Seas Suas has made this argument clear in an open letter to the Taoiseach, Nphet, the NIAC, the minister for health, and the minister for children. 

We believe that with reconsideration of the current programme, Irish children will be better positioned to receive safe, consistent, and sustainable education and care to the benefit of the entire country.

Regina Bushell is chair of Seas Suas and managing director of Grovelands Childcare

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