MINISTERS are coming under pressure to provide clarity on childcare amid warnings women face having to give up their jobs because they have no-one to care for their children as they begin to be recalled to work.
A letter calling for urgent action and "leadership" on childcare provision, sent to health minister Robin Swann and education minister Peter Weir, has been endorsed by the Equality Commission.
Drafted by Ulster University socio-economic law lecturer Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick and FactCheckNI director Orna Young, it is signed by more than 100 supporters, including SDLP MP Claire Hanna, lawyer Ciaran Moynagh and representatives from Amnesty International, the British Association of Social Workers, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Northern Ireland Rural Women's Network and NI Youth Forum.
The Stormont executive yesterday moved to allow church facilities and community halls to open for day care.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill also said it is critical that "workers have the support they need" in terms of childcare and the issue would be discussed again today.
The letter to ministers highlights difficulties of "those who are balancing working from home with education and childcare responsibilities", telling them "there is an urgent need for a roadmap to ensure that children can return to childcare settings when appropriate and the risk has been proven to be reduced".
Ministers are criticised for "a notable lack of any information from those departments (health and education) who are responsible for childcare provision".
"This lack of guidance is having negative implications, as some employees (predominantly women) are falling into unnecessary disputes with employers who expect them to return to the workplace.
"This is not possible without access to childcare. This situation is unacceptable in the short-term."
Ministers are warned that "evidence has shown that it is women who shoulder the majority of childcare responsibility" and many "may be forced to exit formal employment, either entirely, or on a part-time basis, to provide full-time childcare".
The letter also points to equality issues with "parents and guardians from low income and minority ethnic families... (facing) the most acute challenges... (and) likely to feel greater pressure to return to work due to growing financial pressure".
These groups are "more likely to rely on informal childcare arrangements (such as grandparents, who are more at risk if they catch the virus); and are more likely to rely on government subsidised childcare facilities" which will have far fewer places due to social distancing restrictions.
The letter also stresses that young children need peer interaction "to support their emotional development" and warns "the lack of clarity is providing a vacuum in which parents will be forced to put people's health at risk by seeking out their own arrangements."
Equality Commission chief Geraldine McGahey said there are "few things of such fundamental importance to families, the economy and society as the availability of good quality, affordable childcare".
She said lack of provision "impacts women disproportionally and lone parents are likely to be particularly affected".
"The time to act on childcare is now.
"... In the current circumstances, childcare provision needs to be more flexible than ever before... (and) take account not only of the working patterns of parents or carers, which may be more flexible, shift-based or part-time than previously, but also of the potential of a part-time school timetable where children may only be in school for part of each week or in alternate weeks."
The Department of Health said since Monday "the range of working parents for whom childcare is now available has been widened significantly. This includes parents working in the retail sector" and availability can be checked at familysupportni.gov.uk/Support/91/covid19-childcare-options-and-associated-guidance.
"The number of childcare providers operating is expected to increase in the near future in response to parental demand," a spokesman said.