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Coronavirus: Commissioner's plea for help as parents face childcare bills even if nursery facilities shut

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Childcare facilities and nurseries in Northern Ireland will continue to charge parents even if they are forced to close, the Belfast Telegraph has learned

Childcare facilities and nurseries in Northern Ireland will continue to charge parents even if they are forced to close, the Belfast Telegraph has learned

Call: Koulla Yiasouma

Call: Koulla Yiasouma

Childcare facilities and nurseries in Northern Ireland will continue to charge parents even if they are forced to close, the Belfast Telegraph has learned

Childcare facilities and nurseries in Northern Ireland will continue to charge parents even if they are forced to close, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.

It means that some families could face bills of up to £1,000 a month despite potentially having to take time off work to look after their children during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most local schools and childcare businesses remain open, although their counterparts in the Republic were ordered to close for 16 days last week.

Parents are used to paying for childcare on bank holidays - when the facilities traditionally close - but this latest development could result in weeks, possibly months, of paying for a service they are not getting.

One childcare provider in Belfast, Sleepy Hollow, has sent an email saying that the alternative would be the collapse of the childcare industry in Northern Ireland, for which government support is already inferior to the rest of the UK.

The provider said: "It was agreed (by Early Years, the umbrella body) that if we were faced with a forced closure, we would all ask clients to pay full fees and would pay full staff."

The missive added: "As parents know, this falls under our emergency and epidemic policies, and it's in our policies that we cannot refund or waive fees in cases of an unforeseen closure like this."

Managing Director Diane Koplewsky said: "Nursery owners are beyond sick at the thought of what will happen to our sector. Many, many will be laid off now, so of course we won’t be asking parents to pay for 16 weeks."

Childcare providers say their policy has been influenced by insurers refusing to cover the coronavirus illness, thus making the businesses unable to claim against unexpected interruption.

Northern Ireland children's commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said more needs to be done to help parents during the pandemic - including free childcare for those working in the health and social care professions.

"We need arrangements for parents to have childcare, particularly those who work for the NHS and have social care responsibilities," she said.

"We can't have those people coming out of the workforce to look after their children, we need them to look after our vulnerable and our elderly and so there needs to be good, safe, free childcare available for those parents because we also know that grandparents can't look after the children."

Sleepy Hollow said: "This decision from insurers and, lack of government support at this time, could well see the collapse of the childcare industry. We know parents cannot afford this to happen either as, when we get over this unsettled phase, parents will be returning to even busier workloads."

Working mother Catriona, whose primary school daughter needs childcare arrangements four days a week after lessons, told the Belfast Telegraph said she can understand why childcare providers will continue to bill parents during an emergency hiatus. "Our childcare costs just under £250 a month for a couple of hours each day," she explained.

"We get some help with that through a salary sacrifice scheme at work and, ethically, we're happy to continue to pay it because we'd hate to see anyone lose their job down the line due to the knock-on effect."

But the mum-of-one raised concerns for other parents with bigger bills because of their childcare needs.

"When our daughter was a toddler we were paying £760 a month for a full-time nursery place," she said.

"If we were still in that situation, it would be prohibitive.

"I can only imagine the financial hardship facing parents needing care for more than one child during the coronavirus pandemic because somebody is going to have to stay at home and look after the children."

The Belfast Telegraph contacted a series of private nurseries to ask them to confirm their policies.

Families here spend on average £166 per week ­- or £664 per month ­- on childcare, making it the largest or second largest monthly bill for two-thirds of households.

The most recent Annual Northern Ireland Childcare Cost Survey, published by Employers for Childcare, also revealed that parents typically pay more for day nursery provision, at £171 a week (or £684 a month).

Childminder costs come in slightly cheaper, with bills sitting at on average £165 a week (£660) a month.

Full-time childcare costs vary, with families in Co Armagh spending £179 per week - £13 higher than the average of £166, which is what families shell out in Co Down.

The survey, which has been published each year since 2010, shows that after accommodation, childcare bills continue to exceed groceries, heating, transport and other household outgoings.

Increasingly, parents are being forced into debt in order to meet the costs.

Around 22% use credit cards to pay childcare, 12% rely on loans from families and friends, and 15% use financial gifts from loved ones.

Employers for Childcare was contacted by the Belfast Telegraph for comment.

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