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£10.5m support fund for childcare will help sector reopen for business

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Tina McKenzie has welcomed the funding allocation for local childcare providers

Tina McKenzie has welcomed the funding allocation for local childcare providers

Tina McKenzie has welcomed the funding allocation for local childcare providers

Childcare providers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic will be able to apply for financial support from today.

Playgroups, day care settings and childminders are among those now able to access the new Childcare Recovery Fund.

Education Minister Peter Weir announced the funding package last week following the allocation of £10.5m by the Stormont Executive.

Mr Weir said the package, which will cover July and August, will help childcare providers reopen or remain open.

According to the Early Years organisation, more than nine in 10 nurseries and day care providers were forced to close at the end of March, and although some have since reopened they are operating at lower capacity due to social distancing guidelines.

The Northern Ireland Childminding Association has also warned of the difficulties faced by its members who are restricted to caring for smaller numbers of children.

Childcare has been a problem for parents returning to work as businesses come out of lockdown.

An earlier support package which was set up by Stormont to provide childcare for children of key workers was scrapped after it emerged that only five per cent of the £12m available had been spent.

Policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) NI Tina McKenzie welcomed the funding, saying she hoped it "will flow rapidly to providers, allowing more to reopen while dealing with additional costs and uncertainty in this unique set of circumstances".

"Hopefully this will also prevent further permanent closures of childcare settings and enable more parents and guardians to access childcare again," she said.

"Indeed, one of the most significant consequences of lockdown has been the impact on families with children, and this remains a concerning time for parents, guardians, and for child development more generally. Just as the Covid-19 crisis has forced us to recognise the absolutely vital role of health and social care, similarly it has really brought home how childcare provision is such a vital piece of infrastructure for our economy and society."

Ms McKenzie also called for a properly funded childcare strategy to be implemented now, describing it as "the key with which we can unlock so much of Northern Ireland's economic potential".

However, the Education Minister has said he does not envisage work on the Executive's childcare strategy starting for some time.

Mr Weir was replying on Friday to an Assembly question from the Green Party's Rachel Woods.

He said: "Since March of this year the small childcare team in my department has been solely focused on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"This work is ongoing and I do not envisage 'normal' work recommencing on the strategy for a number of months.

"Having said that, it has not been lost time. There has been useful learning, which will help shape our plans for the longer term.

"The importance of affordable childcare is acknowledged as an essential enabler for a thriving economy. I plan to bring forward a strategy in due course subject to agreed Executive funding."

Mr Weir said the level of funding will determine, to a large extent, what can be achieved.

"The design, planning and phased implementation will take a number of years and may require primary legislation," he added.

The aims of the strategy are to improve child development and promote parental employment.

Belfast Telegraph