An Irvinestown community facility which opened on “ethical rather than financial” reasons to look after children post-lockdown is operating at an “unsustainable level of financial loss”.

Active Allsorts Children's Centre, operated by the Arc Healthy Living Centre, was reopened in recent weeks in an effort to safeguard children and assist parents amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The award-winning charity’s chief executive Jenny Irvine has said the children’s centre which opened due to the “absence of safe childcare” in Fermanagh is now “haemorrhaging money”.

“When lockdown commenced it made sense to close childcare, we didn’t know what the prevalence of the infection locally was, and naturally we wanted to safeguard our children and our staff. Our first and guiding principle was always do no harm.

“Over the course of lockdown we began to appreciate that the absence of safe childcare could do real harm to our community. Indeed our children’s committee chairperson made a very compelling appeal, he said nobody was listening to children, everyone was making decisions on their behalf, but no one had taken the time to ask, we took the time to ask questions, more importantly we empathetically listened to the answers,” she said.

With the help and support of the Early Years Inspector within the Western Health and Social Care Trust, the ARC Centre reopened Active Allsorts childcare in June, having met all the enhanced standards set to reduce risk to both children and staff.

“The reopening was fully risk assessed and a range of protective measures were put in place, including increased cleaning, reducing ‘pinch points’ such as parents dropping children off at the start and end of the day, and utilising outdoor space.

“Information was sought from parents relating to children’s health and well-being and clear guidance was put in place prior to opening. Now, when children arrive they have a contactless temperature check and they clean their hands, this has become part of their daily routine and they understand why,” explained Jenny.

She said reopening childcare may be essential for economic recovery “but it has seriously impacted on our financial viability”.

“Active Allsorts was never profit making or profit taking, but now we operate at an unsustainable level of financial loss. This is mainly due to the increased spend and decreased income. Firstly we almost doubled our floor space to, as far as possible enable social distancing, we have invested in resources and equipment to support safe practice, at the same time we have to reduce our enrolment in line with DoH guidance. We cannot and do not seek to recover this spend from a community already struggling. In the last week we have applied to the coivd charity fund administered on behalf of the Department of Communities by The National Lottery.

Opening childcare was based on ethical rather than financial assumptions.”

Sheelagh and Keiran Keown both work full time and have three young children aged 10, five and three all of whom had been at home full time since mid-March. They “urgently needed” the re-opening of childcare so they could continue working.

Prior to lockdown, their two older children attended school and thereafter Active Allsorts. The youngest attended a different registered childcare setting. The updated guidance from Department of Health supports that families are looked after in the same childcare setting to minimise the spread of Covid-19, so now all three children are part of the ‘playpod’ in Active Allsorts.

“In March my husband and I already had a full schedule of raising a family of three and working full time. Suddenly we were working full time from our kitchen with our children around us,” explained Sheelagh.

“We were not defined as key workers but we had critical roles within the criminal justice system and for a company supplying medical supplies. Our work did not decrease or reduce and we found ourselves busier than we had ever been,” she said.

Combining this with three young children at home, along with attempts at home schooling, the lockdown quickly became an extremely grim experience.

“I can understand that lockdown was a necessary evil and required to curb the spread of this ugly disease. Nevertheless, it has taken its toll on us as parents and, worryingly, more so on our children.

“Anyone who has experienced working at home with children will testify is it not feasible.”

She explained that lockdown “became about surviving” adding that there was “very little thriving.”

“Childcare provides a balance, take it away and you take away the stability that families need. We have felt the loss of childcare not only on our day to day lives, but on all our long-term health and well-being. Working from home under these circumstances meant that our house was no longer our sanctuary. Rather it became a house fraught with tension and stress, trying to do everything at once and at the same time achieving very little.”

Sheelagh believes there has been a “lack of consideration given to children” over the last number of months, explaining that pubs opened before playgrounds, libraries remain closed yet tourist travel freely to Northern Ireland.

“In all the recovery plans being exercised by the authorities, little thought is given to the impact on children’s mental health. Whereas my three were social individuals who happily ran off to play, now my three-year-old cries if I leave the house. My children constantly worry where we are and when we will be home if my husband or I leave the house.”

She paid tribute to the “mammoth efforts” of the team at the Arch Healthy Living Centre and said her family were “indebted” to the facility.

“With the realisation that COVID-19 is here for the immediate future, all parents must be supported to help children return to safe play and learning spaces.

“Safe quality childcare with families being kept together is key in reducing transmission and, as families begin to emerge from the darkness of the last few months, they can be assured that children will be safe, secure and happy,” she said.