The federal government says it will make Australian childcare services free during the coronavirus crisis, with priority given to parents who need to continue working. It is promoting its plan as a way to help childcare centres remain open and viable through the crisis. It also says parents who choose to keep their children at home during the pandemic can remain enrolled without paying fees and keep their place for when the crisis is over.
What’s the problem that needs fixing?
The childcare sector has been calling out for urgent assistance from the federal government as, over the past few weeks, an increasing number of parents have been pulling their children out of care. Because of the existing rules, operators have continued charging parents the gap between the childcare subsidy and the overall fee during absences. This has prompted some families to cancel enrolments, and centres facing a decline in their revenue have started to lay off staff, cut their hours or even consider closure.
What is changing next week?
From 6 April, the government will start making payments to childcare centres at the rate of about 50% of the usual fees. It will be based on the attendance figures that each centre had in the fortnight before 2 March – before numbers plummeted. These payments will be instead of existing payments, such as the childcare subsidy. The government estimates these payments will be worth $1.6bn over the coming three months. In addition, new wage subsidies may be available to centres.
Under the new scheme, what fees will I be charged?
In return for receiving the new government payments, childcare services will be required to ensure families are not charged a fee, including an out-of-pocket or gap fee.
What if my childcare service usually charges more than the hourly fee cap?
Again, childcare services that continue operating will be required not to charge families any fee at all.
What happens to the childcare subsidy I was receiving?
The government will provide the new funding directly to childcare operators. During the new arrangements, the existing childcare subsidy (CCS) and additional childcare subsidy (ACCS) payments will not apply. This means those who send their children to childcare will pay no fees directly.
Will fees be reimbursed or just not taken from parents?
Again, the new funding goes directly to childcare centres. You should not have to pay the centre a fee once the new system kicks in next week.
Is it really free for everyone, or are the existing means-testing arrangements still in place?
The education minister, Dan Tehan, has said the means-testing arrangements are no longer in place, because the government wants to ensure everyone who is working and needs to access care during the coronavirus disruption can do so.
Will my child’s centre remain open?
Before this announcement, a number of centres had already closed their doors because of the financial pressures. The government wants to ensure as many remain operating as possible.
In return for the new funding, services will be subject to a range of conditions, including that they “stay open unless closed on public health advice or for other health and safety reasons”. Services that make a business decision to close are not eligible for the new funding.
Can I increase my child’s days in care now?
Families who need to increase their hours or days have been advised to discuss it with their child’s centre. The government is calling on people to show commonsense and understand that the priority will be given to those who need to be working and cannot care for their children.
I work from home – am I eligible for free childcare?
Yes, depending on the circumstances. Tehan said centres had been asked to prioritise those who need their children cared for because they are working, including when they cannot care for their children safely at home. Other priorities include vulnerable children who need continuity of care, and those who have recently been taken out of childcare.
At a media conference in Canberra, Scott Morrison said: “In this new normal that we are living in, it is no longer about entitlement. It is about need. We are calling on all Australians to think about what they need and to think about the needs of their fellow Australians who may have a greater need when it comes to calling on the many things that have been provided.”
Is there an application process? How much is at the discretion of the centre?
Parents should speak directly to their childcare operator if they have questions about how it will affect their services. There is no government application process for parents.
I cancelled my child’s enrolment in the past few weeks? Can I re-enrol?
The government is encouraging families who have terminated their enrolment since 17 February to get back in contact with their centre about restarting their arrangements. “Restarting your enrolment will not require you to send your child to childcare and it certainly won’t require you to pay a gap fee,” Tehan said. “Restarting your enrolment will, however, hold your place for that point in time when things start to normalise, and you are ready to take your child back to their centre.”
So if I keep my child enrolled but choose to keep them at home until the crisis is over, will I have to pay any fees to keep the place?
You will not have to pay fees to keep the place. From 6 April, the old rules about the number of allowable absences no longer apply. During an appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 program, Tehan was asked about parents who choose to keep their child at home and whether the place would still be available down the track when the pandemic was over. “Yes,” the minister replied.
I have not been sending my child to childcare recently, but have not cancelled the enrolment. What happens to fees I have paid during the recent absences?
Childcare centres will be allowed to waive out-of-pocket fees for families where a service remains open but children are not attending for Covid-19 reasons, from 23 March onwards. However, this particular waiver is at the discretion of the centre. The move is designed to encourage families to stay enrolled. The new fee-free system takes effect on 6 April.
How long will the new free childcare arrangements be in place?
The system will be reviewed after a month and the government will consider an extension after three months. There seems to be an expectation that the system will last at least six months in total.
What about family daycare?
The government says the new arrangements also apply to family daycare services.
What about outside school hours care?
These services will be able to access the new measures.
What about vacation care?
Vacation care is also covered. However, the government’s funding to services providing vacation care only will be calculated based on the vacation period between term 3 and term 4 last year.