A black market in childcare services could develop because of the confusion around people returning to work, which could put the safety of children at risk, the Northern Ireland Childminding Association (Nicma) has warned.
Nicma is concerned that hundreds of registered child-minding businesses will not survive the Covid-19 outbreak as they struggle financially without support, and that the safety of children could be put at risk.
Child-minders have seen their business disappear overnight, freeing the market for unregistered child-minders to step in to provide the service without the necessary safeguarding.
After more than two months of lockdown, 1,020 of 2,700 registered child-minders in Northern Ireland have remained operational to help to look after the children of key workers and vulnerable children.
However, the remainder have had to temporarily suspend business, and Nicma said the financial pressure was now taking a heavy toll.
"The only financial help offered was Universal Credit, which many were ineligible for as they may have had a partner, husband or wife that was working or furloughed," said Nicma chief executive officer Patricia Lewsley-Mooney.
"Employment support allowance meant you had to prove your ineligibility for work for a valid reason and again many could not claim.
"In the daycare setting, staff could be furloughed and a new approved home childcare scheme was set up to allow children of key workers to be looked after in their own homes.
"A sustainability fund to help with their overheads, both when closed and then when they open again, has also been available.
"But we feel child-minders have been discriminated against, considering they are at present the largest provider of childcare.
"Those working can claim £125 per child up to a maximum of four children per month, which may just about cover their overheads, but there's nothing for those struggling with no work and no other source of income.
"Coming out of lockdown, there will be a restriction on numbers attending childcare settings, including child-minders, and this could well see a large rise in the number of unregistered child-minders.
"This will be very dangerous as anyone who is minding children who is not registered will be in fact breaking the law and will be putting children at risk.
"These individuals will not have been vetted, it will be a safeguarding issue and they will definitely have no public liability insurance."
The Department for the Economy said that while not all businesses were currently eligible for support during the Covid-19 outbreak, they are still working to assist areas of the economy which have not yet been reached.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the department said: "Child-minders may be eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme at www. nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/coronavirus-support-and- advice-self-employed.
"There is also a range of further support available, including the coronavirus business interruption schemes, bounce back loan scheme and coronavirus job retention scheme. More information is at www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/coronavirus.
"We recognise that not all businesses will meet the eligibility criteria for support.
"We will continue to work to identify future funding to help support as many businesses as possible."