Update: Childcare support for essential health staff

The HSE has today (Wednesday) confirmed that it is essentially following Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) guidance on childcare supports for essential workers. Fórsa continues to insist that this falls far short of what’s required to assist essential health staff, and to maximise the numbers available in hospitals, community health services, and nursing homes.

While it has been widely reported that the HSE was considering paid leave for staff with childcare responsibilities, clarification received from the HSE today confirms that this will not happen.

This possibility was raised by the HSE at a meeting with health unions yesterday (Tuesday). To avoid confusion among health workers, Fórsa sought clarification on the grounds that such a proposal seemed to contradict official DPER advice. It was also unclear how it would be compatible with providing essential services during the Covid-19 public health crisis.

It was agreed that the HSE would clarify the position within 24 hours, and it has now done so.

While health unions have pressed the Government to deliver on its commitment to provide childcare supports, Fórsa did not seek the proposal floated by the HSE yesterday. Indeed, the Staff Panel, which represents all health unions, has repeatedly sought a solution where the HSE provides direct childcare support to essential workers and/or meets the costs of the childcare arrangements that individual staff members put in place for their children.

Fórsa has today stressed to the HSE that this remains the union position – and that urgent action by the Government is now required.

Last week’s Government announcement that public servants who are partners of essential health staff could be given paid leave to assist with childcare is of little help. It will not help those hit hardest by childcare difficulties – single parents, and families where both adults are essential workers – or assist health workers whose partners have jobs in the private sector.

Staffing pressures in the health service have worsened in recent weeks because significant numbers of health workers have contracted the virus or have had to self-isolate. Meanwhile, the lack of Government support means increasing numbers of health workers have been forced to take annual leave to cover gaps in their temporary childcare arrangements.

This has penalised the very people who provide essential services, often at considerable personal risk to themselves, and has further depleted the staff complements in hospitals and elsewhere.

It is now almost seven weeks since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the closure of all schools and crèches. At that time, Fórsa and other health unions were assured that the Government would quickly put childcare supports in place for essential staff working to prevent the spread of coronavirus and treat those with the condition.

Essential health staff are dismayed that there had been so little progress in the meantime. Fórsa has been pushing the HSE for a solution, and raised the issue directly with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week.