The coronavirus lockdown forced many people in Northern Ireland to work from home – but with schools closed, a lot of parents have also had to look after their children at the same time.
With some sectors of the economy now reopening, what childcare is available for parents who are expected to return to their place of work?
Here’s a guide to the latest guidance in Northern Ireland, and what it means for parents and providers.
Who can access childcare in Northern Ireland?
At the start of the pandemic, some schools and other childcare settings stayed open on a limited basis, for parents classed as key workers, and vulnerable children.
Those restrictions have not changed, but last week the definition of a key worker was widened by the Departments of Health and Education.
This was to pre-empt more parents returning to jobs in retail, with the sector allowed to fully reopen from 12 June.
The full list of key workers can be seen here.
With more parents now being defined as key workers, demand for childcare is set to rise – but providers are having to significantly change how they operate.
The Department of Education said “extensive work is under way between the relevant departments” to plan for “adequate and appropriate childcare as we move through the phased recovery plan”.
What’s the situation for day-care centres and nurseries?
Not all of them can open yet.
There are 344 day nurseries in Northern Ireland, about 80% of which are private businesses, according to the Early Years Organisation.
It is estimated more than nine in 10 nurseries and day-care providers closed in late March, because of the reduction in numbers of children attending.
To reopen, centres must have demand for at least 25% of the overall number of registered places or 15 vulnerable children or those of key workers.
There are also restrictions on group sizes to minimise the spread of the virus.
What will day-care centres look like now?
The Departments of Health and Education, which both have responsibility for childcare, have advised day-care centres to organise children in “play pods”.
These should be as small as possible, limited to 12 children and with the same members of staff assigned each day.
Lynda Courtney runs a day-care centre in Moygashel, County Tyrone, which is preparing to reopen in the next fortnight.
She said she feels very positive about resuming business, but advised parents that the centres will look different.
“We’ve had to remove soft furnishings and some toys, and there are now more entrances and exits,” said Mrs Courtney.
“A lot of parents are anxious that their child can’t be lifted up or even touched, but the play pods will make it feel like they’ve their own little family in day care.
“We’ve had to think outside the box and look at ways of changing, but we’ve adapted.”
Are childminders available?
Yes, but they can also only accept vulnerable children and those of key workers.
There are about 2,700 self-employed, registered childminders in Northern Ireland. Just over 1,100 continued to work during the lockdown.
Currently, they can look after the children of three families at one time, according to government guidance.
This can increase to four families at the one time in July, and to five families in August – but the Departments of Education and Health say it is subject to medical and scientific advice.
Patricia Lewsley-Mooney of the Northern Ireland Childminding Association welcomed that decision, but said more still needs to be done.
“We need to be talking to the Department for the Economy with regard to employers being a bit more understanding when it comes to employees’ access to childcare,” she said.
“We’re hearing anecdotally that some parents are being told if they do not go back to work by Monday, there could be disciplinary processes in place.
“It’s not that they don’t want to go back to work, but it may be too short notice, or they’re not on a childminder’s list or their childminder can’t take more kids.”
What if I can’t access a childminder or day care centre?
From 12 June, places of worship and community centres have been allowed to open to provide childcare, following a decision taken by the executive.
But questions remain about staffing of the facilities, and how many hours they will open per day.
Stormont ministers met on Friday as part ongoing efforts to find a permanent solution for the childcare sector, but those talks are expected to roll into next week.
Can grandparents look after children?
Pre-lockdown, many parents would have relied on grandparents for help with childcare.
Families are still not permitted to visit each other indoors, so many people will not be able to go down this route.
However, so-called support bubbles for adults who live alone in Northern Ireland can start from Saturday.
A grandparent who lives alone could potentially form a bubble with one of their children, which means they could go to see them and interact with their grandchildren.
How many people in Northern Ireland rely on childcare?
About 350,000 workers in Northern Ireland have dependent children, according to the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI).
Its research suggests 70% of them are likely to have “intensive childcare requirements”.
Childcare was not specifically mentioned in the executive’s five-step Pathway to Recovery plan, but Ms Lewsley-Mooney said she recognised the executive is now focusing on the issue.
“Childcare is a lynchpin for the whole economy,” she added.
What other information is available?
The Departments of Health and Education say parents seeking childcare should consult the Family Support NI website to find out what is available in their area.
A Department of Education spokesperson said: “Childcare is a crucial part of our recovery from coronavirus and a key priority for the executive.
“The first minister and deputy first minister met with the health and education ministers on plans to ensure the provision of adequate and appropriate childcare as we move through the phased recovery plan.
“Extensive work is under way between the relevant departments to progress this and guidance issued to the childcare providers and parents earlier this week.
“The wider issue of both formal and informal childcare provision will be discussed again by the executive next week.
“Ministers understand the urgency of this and will provide further updates for parents and professionals as soon as possible.”
A helpline is also available on 0808 8020 400, where an early years team within the local health trust can provide advice on childcare solutions in a parent’s area.