Even before the pandemic, childcare was one of the biggest challenges facing young families. “It cripples families financially,” says Lucia Ryan, a school principal and parent of three-year-old twins.
Covid-19 has intensified the pressure on parents and providers, launching them into a new world of regulations, “play pods” and resulting staffing pressures.
“Our creche couldn’t find staff. So they reduced their hours to finish at 4pm,” Ryan, the principal of Hartstown Community School in Dublin, tells The Irish Times.
She was left trying to “run a school from home in the afternoons” and look after two-year-old twins, Matilda and John, though they are now enrolled in the State’s Early Childhood and Childcare Scheme, along with an afternoon childminder.
But she worries about the pressure facing parents and the “absolute heroes” who are the country’s childcare workers. Her third child is due in three weeks. She’s trying not to think about what happens when her maternity leave ends. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
For many, the complications of the post-pandemic world of work and childcare are only beginning. A new era of flexibility is supposed to free people but, in practice, things could get worse, not better.
Up to 200,000 children are in early years services, with parents paying €800 per month for a creche place, and up to €1,200 a month in some areas. Now, some are discovering that their needs do not always align with either a childcare provider or their employer.
Michelle Walsh, who works with the Health Service Executive, recently returned to work after maternity leave with her second child, and considered herself lucky to get a place for the baby in the only creche in her rural town, where her three year old already attends. “On my first day back at work, the creche called to say they had to cut hours for my one year old and could only provide childcare until 1pm.”
The three-year-old could still stay full days. Walsh runs clinics in primary care four days a week, so “it is impossible to change hours to facilitate this. I’ve now had to find a childminder for the afternoons and start settling in again. To say the situation has been stressful is an understatement.”
The combination of a creche in the mornings and childminder in the afternoons is proving more expensive than full days in the creche would be. But it is her last option and she may have to take a career break if arrangements falter.
Other parents have similar stories, telling of the difficulty of juggling the same hours at work with reduced hours in childcare, the fees which haven’t changed and the dread felt that a child could be sent home with a sniffle.
“Our creche has reduced its hours. They haven’t reduced fees,” says Olivia, who doesn’t want to use her real name because she does not want to be perceived as critical of her creche or her employer, when she’s just frustrated by the system. “It used to be 7.30am to 6pm. Now it’s 8.00am to 5.30pm, which can be challenging . . . I know management are keen not to raise fees, but they say with the pod system, it’s impossible to have the staff for longer hours.”
Consequently, she has to finish work at 5pm. “Right now I’m still WFH [working from home] but it will be even more challenging once I go back to the office in a couple of weeks. In the old days, I used to drop three kids to creche for 7.45am, where they got breakfast and two were brought to school from there. Then I could work from 8am to 5.30pm. Now, we need to split drop-off for school and creche, make it to work for 9am and rush out of work at 5pm for pick-up.”
Her employer is understanding, but the hours have to be made up. “It’s just back to the same old juggling – logging in early morning or after kids go to bed.”
So what exactly is going on to put Ireland’s already-struggling childcare infrastructure under such additional strain? “The pre-Covid pressures are back with a bang,” says Frances Byrne, policy director with Early Childcare Ireland, which represents 3,900 childcare providers providing care for 120,000 children.
Irish parents already pay the third-highest proportion of their income on childcare of OECD countries, due, provider say, to the lack of spending over generations by successive governments.
According to the OECD, Ireland was spending just 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product on early years prior to Covid, the lowest investment of any developed country. During Covid, additional government funding “kept the show on the road” and meant that creches were able to keep staff employed and stay open, Byrne says. But as the world returns to normal, there’s no certainty over how long that funding will be available.
Meanwhile, although the pod system is supposed to offer some flexibility – allowing staff to move between pods to cover breaks for each other for example – in practice many creches feel they’ve been left with a choice of hiring more staff or reducing hours. Regina Bushell, who is the managing director of Grovelands, which operates six childcare centres in the midlands and runs the Seas Suas group representing independent childcare providers, explains how it has reduced the places available to babies.
“The regulations require a ratio of three [babies] to one [staff member]. But realistically for governance, I need a three to two ratio, because that one person has to have annual leave, lunch breaks, their comfort breaks, they may go out sick. I require those three babies to be in on a full-time basis to cover the cost.”
“Service providers would love to be able to provide as much flexibility as required. But there is a sustainability problem if parents only want to do five hours, but there are staff there who need to be paid for 10 hours.”
One mother in a different part of the country, Sinead, said her daughter used to attend after-school care from 2.30pm to 5.30pm five days a week. She had been hoping to use the care for two days, not five because of Covid-prompted changes to her work, but the provider can only do all or nothing.
Sinead is understandably annoyed, but, explains Byrne, “It’s not an inflexibility by choice; it’s an inflexibility imposed by the funding models.”
Funding is tied to attendance, says Byrne. So the National Childcare Scheme is the most flexible, but it can only offer flexibility “for up to eight weeks”, says Byrne. “If someone is saying I’m not going to need care on a Wednesday because I’m working from home or I reduced my hours, it’s really difficult for providers to offer that flexibility. Over time, their public funding will be withdrawn.”
The answer, believes Early Childhood Ireland, is more money and more flexibility. The Government has committed to doubling spending by 2028, but a five-year budget is needed, says Byrne.
And the models must adapt to post-Covid working. In Scandinavian counties, the provider is not “punished” if a parent is in a position to reduce their child’s hours. “We need to move to a Scandinavian model, where everybody pays something, but the richest pay more – but even the richest only pay up to a certain amount.”
As things stand, says Olivia, Ireland is no country for working parents and “definitely no country for working mothers.”
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Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword off coast of Israel
Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.
On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.
It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.
“Oh yes, he was surprised and happy,” said Jacob Sharvit, the director of the marine archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Katzin said he would give the sword to Sharvit’s agency, but he wanted just one thing: a photo with the shell-encrusted weapon.
The recent discovery was welcomed in a country that takes immense pride in its history and has a law requiring that any artifacts found must be returned to the nation. The sword was among several artifacts discovered by Katzin, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not want the discovery to be about him. He also found stone anchors and pottery fragments that date back hundreds of years. But nothing was more impressive than the sword, which Sharvit described as “extremely rare.”
All of the items were found in the same 1,000-square-foot site. The authority has been aware of the location since June, after a storm shifted the sand. Still, finding artifacts remains elusive because of the movement of the sand.
“It’s normal to find swords in bad condition, but this one was found under the water – and under the water, it was preserved in very good condition,” Sharvit said Monday. “It’s the first time that we found a beautiful sword like this.”
The water off the Carmel coast remains the same temperature year-round, which helped preserve the iron in the sword. Because the iron was oxidizsed, shells and other marine organisms stuck onto it like glue, Sharvit said. The discovery of ancient artifacts has increased as diving has grown in popularity in Israel, he said.
In the Second Crusade, the Muslim forces defeated Western crusaders at Damascus, said Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London. The sword would have been expensive to make at the time and viewed as a status symbol, Holloway said. It makes sense that it was found in the sea, he said, because many battles were waged near beaches, where Christian soldiers landed and were sometimes attacked by Muslim forces.
“It could have been from a knight who fell in the sea or lost it in a fight at sea,” he said. When Katzin found it, he said he was afraid it would be stolen or buried beneath shifting sand, according to a statement from the authority. The general director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escosido, praised Katzin because “every ancient artifact that is found helps us piece together the historical puzzle of the Land of Israel.” Katzin was given a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.
During the Third Crusade, King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart of England), and the holy Roman emperor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), set out to retake Jerusalem. Saladin, the ruler of an area covering modern Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had conquered it in 1187, said John Cotts, a professor of medieval history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
At the time, Pope Gregory VIII tried to inspire Western Christians through “great emotional language” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, but ultimately the Muslim army maintained control of the city, Cotts said. “Traditionally, the definition of a knight is someone on horseback who engaged in mounted warfare,” Cotts said. It is possible that the sword belonged to one of them, and has survived for nine centuries, Sharvit said. After the sword is studied and cleaned, it will be placed in one of the country’s museums, Sharvit said. He would not disclose how much it could sell for, he said, because in his opinion, it was “priceless.” “Every artifact we find is always a really great feeling,” he said. But this one “is very, very special.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
OPINION: Watching from Italy we always knew UK’s Covid response was a ‘failure’
Watching the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK from Italy was like looking into a parallel universe.
As someone with a dual British and Italian identity, it was also a defining moment for my relationship with the UK.
On March 9th, 2020, Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the first nationwide lockdown. The message of his historic ‘Io Resto a Casa’ (‘I’m staying home’) speech was clear: public health comes before other interests, as important as they may be.
And we stayed home. The Great Italian Bake-Off had begun.
As the crisis worsened in other countries, Britons living in Italy – and Italians living in Britain – looked at the UK’s response and thought: what are they waiting for?
To our frustration, the recent Commons report on the UK’s handling of the first wave of the pandemic only told those of us with connections to both countries what we already knew. The UK hadn’t learned from Italy’s experience.
Unsurprisingly, the Commons report called the UK’s government decisions on lockdowns and social distancing in the early weeks of the pandemic “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”.
It was a delay that cost thousands of lives.
Italy battled the pandemic with little data. But crucially, Italian officials drilled the message, quite literally, home: the situation is serious and there is no time to waste.
By comparison, the UK’s attitude – despite by then having access to data from China, the WHO and Italy – was staggering.
The Commons report brings the bewilderment we felt at the time into clear focus.
On January 31st 2020, then-Health Minister Matt Hancock was informed by experts that a worst-case scenario would cause 820,000 deaths.
The same week Italy locked down, the numbers in the UK started to align with this worst-case scenario. Despite the alarming data, Britain’s lockdown plan was yet to be formulated.
The same day, famed TV doctor Christian Jessen was forced to issue a public apology after comparing Covid-19 to the flu and accusing Italians of using lockdown as an excuse for a “siesta”.
Faced with such widespread mixed messaging, it’s little wonder the British public appeared largely oblivious to the looming danger.
As the military was called in to help with Bergamo’s overflowing morgues on March 18th, British acquaintances happily announced on social media that they were not closing shop.
Watching the UK’s response to Covid from Italy was like watching a drunk friend get behind the wheel of their car. Unfortunately, there was no snatching the keys out of their hands and calling a taxi.
Sharon Braithwaite, a British-Italian journalist living in London, says that, as people stocked up on pasta and toilet paper, she too asked: ”when will the (UK) government do something concrete?’.
It was frustrating – and at times insulting – for those of us with connections to both countries to hear how the Italian crisis was being narrated in Britain.
A great deal of myths have been used to justify why Italy was so badly affected. Some blamed multi-generational families living under the same roof, while others pointed the finger at the Italian practice of kissing on the cheek. Though multigenerational families are more common in Italy than they are in the UK, the set-up is not so widespread that it could explain the overfilled morgues.
Perhaps most insidious of all were the comments made about Italy’s National Health System.
In one example, Dr Zoe Williams, a family doctor and media personality, reassured the public by saying in an interview on This Morning – a staple of British daytime TV – that ‘[the British] healthcare system is very different to Italy’.
Where the difference lies is unclear: both countries fall under the same universal healthcare model, even though Italy’s is highly decentralised, leaving health care management to individual regions.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Italian health care system is internationally well-regarded and is often ranked as one of the best in the world.
And the pandemic first hit (and overwhelmed) northern Italian regions widely regarded as having the best healthcare in the country.
Seeing Italy’s flagship hospitals in the wealthy region of Lombardy under tremendous strain should have been a further alarm bell.
If Italians have the second-highest life expectancy in Europe (83.1 years, second only to Spain) the healthcare system is to thank.
During the British government’s own enquiry, Professor Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer for England, blamed “groupthink” and “British exceptionalism” for the fact British experts did not believe something like SARS could ever get from Asia to the UK.
As Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said: the UK “missed an opportunity to prepare during the first months of 2020”.
This had long been apparent to many in Italy. As someone with dual British and Italian identity, the pandemic, paired with the chaos created by Brexit, is transforming my relationship with Britain.
No longer the country of common sense and opportunity, Britain seems like a land consumed by isolationism and exceptionalism – an issue which has now engulfed public health.
The UK now has among the highest infection rates in the world, with 45,000 new cases being reported in a single day. The death toll is rising.
In Italy, for now the health situation remains largely under control. The government and the majority of people remain cautious. In some ways, nothing has changed.
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