Childcare centre owners sound alarm as state and federal governments clash over coronavirus bailout

Desperately needed healthcare workers could be forced to stay home to care for children unless immediate action is taken to rescue the childcare sector, according to operators who are warning of an imminent industry collapse.

Key points:

  • Childcare centre owners warn closures would force parents out of potentially essential work
  • State governments requested an immediate bailout, but were denied by the Commonwealth
  • The Prime Minister says the Government is working on plans for the “essential service” of child care

“The industry, the entire sector, the profession, we’re in crisis,” Jae Fraser, who owns and operates nine childcare centres, said.

“Some services have no children enrolled, so it’s kind of gone beyond urgent. It’s now dire and we’re really concerned about the future of the industry and the profession.”

Mr Fraser estimates at least 200 of the families that use his Little Scholars Childcare service are essential workers crucial to responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

“On the Gold Coast, I’ve got a little service which is right near the Gold Coast University Hospital and the Gold Coast private hospital, and 60 to 80 per cent of my families are healthcare professionals or essential service workers — so teachers, police, council and fire workers,” he said.

“If I can’t continue to serve and offer quality educational care to those families, they’re not going to be able to go to work.

“The fear is not only about the future of our industry, but in a pandemic the hospitals need to be open to care for all these people that are falling ill.”

The industry says one in three children have stopped attending child care nationally, which reduces the amount operators receive from government, while overheads like rent and wages remain an outgoing cost.

Some parents have lost jobs themselves, and are no longer sending their children to child care, while others are keeping their children home to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Childcare operators fear that every day without an industry bailout could result in widespread closures, which would severely jeopardise the long-term recovery of the sector.

“If we all close and hand our keys back to our landlords, we’re not going to reopen,” Mr Fraser said.

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State, federal governments clash at National Education Council meeting

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan told the ABC a national working group had been set up to urgently deal with child care after yesterday’s Education Council meeting of state and federal ministers.

“We had a very good discussion, very productive. We noted that there had been measures that had been taken both at an economy-wide level and at a sector level to help the early childhood education sector,” Mr Tehan said.

“We all agreed to continue to work with the sector as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and we established a small working group which will be chaired by the Australian Government, which will provide urgent advice back to the Education Council by early next week on regulatory, funding and viability measures.”

Sources said child care was the matter that dominated the meeting, and that the states united in their demands for an immediate bailout, out of concern the sector would fail.

The states asked the Commonwealth to pay childcare operators the amount they were receiving before the impacts of coronavirus were realised, regardless of current attendance rates, and noted that these figures had already been accounted for in the budget. The Commonwealth refused.

“Can I just say how much the Commonwealth appreciates the cooperative way in which all ministers are working in the national interest and putting politics aside at this incredibly important time in our nation’s history,” Mr Tehan said.

Commonwealth sources said the states did not offer to tip in any money, and that childcare was just one of many sectors hit hard by the coronavirus.

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The Commonwealth urged the states to adopt a nationally consistent messaging strategy, arguing that parents were keeping younger children out of child care based on advice by state premiers about keeping older children home where possible.

The meeting again reached an impasse, with the states refusing to agree.

Prime Minister making plans for ‘essential service’

On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the sector as an essential service.

Scott Morrison's full Friday afternoon press conference

“This is one of the very sensitive areas. We’re working on a plan to deal with that … they are an essential part of keeping the economy running,” Mr Morrison said.

“We haven’t finalised those arrangements yet.”

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The Opposition’s early childhood education spokeswoman Amanda Rishworth said it was time to act.

“We are many weeks into this crisis and the Prime Minister says he is still developing a plan for early education,” Ms Rishworth said.

“Families, early educators and providers cannot wait any longer — the sector is on the brink of collapse.

“This will leave families without a childcare place, early educators and directors without a job, and providers without a business.”

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