Towards the end of March, when parents were juggling working from home, without any formal childcare, news broke that lit up WhatsApp groups across the country.

It was announced that the State was to pay the wages of all childcare workers, effectively becoming their employer for a 12-week period. In return, fees would have to be waived for three months and a child's place guaranteed once their doors re-opened.

For parents this was welcome news mainly because it meant they would not have to pay fees for a service that was not at the time being provided. But what caused more of a stir was the prospect of lasting changes in the way child care is provided in this country.

With the State now shouldering the cost of child care services which had thus far been left mainly to the private sector, would the Government be able to resist pressure to play a greater role - pressure that had already been growing since the general election a month earlier? 

Now that the Government has shown how it could step in overnight when needed, could it justify parents having to pay a "second mortgage" ever again?

Even the taoiseach of the day accepted that there could be no going back. Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that the measure would be temporary but said "that is not to say that changes might not make sense as longer term policies as well".

When it came to childcare, he said, the plan was always to "incrementally" reduce what parents had to pay by expanding the ECCE and the national childcare scheme - the two main financial supports available. But "in some ways, we have done that in one fell swoop, an incremental measure done very quickly," he said.

He added: "The House might decide not to roll back that entirely."

Fast forward five months to the Budget and not only has the Government decided that it will roll back entirely on those emergency measures, but the incremental approach that Mr Varadkar spoke of appears to have been stalled. 

The Budget allocation for the sector for 2021 is €638 million - the same as it was for 2020. (The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, has pointed out that this is an increase from €250m five years ago).

Payments under the National Childcare Scheme (that provides around €20 a week towards the cost of childcare) and the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme (which provides three hours a day of childcare from the age of three until the start of school) have remained the same.  

This is despite promises in both the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil programmes for government to expand these schemes. 

There are expected savings anticipated in the ECCE scheme, due to demographics, and this will go towards increased funding under the AIM programme that supports the full participation of children with disabilities or learning difficulties in the ECCE scheme. 

In defending its decision not to direct any extra funding towards childcare, the Government has made two arguments. 

The first is that it is carrying out a "comprehensive review" with the intention of a wider reform of the sector next year. The second is that it is targeting its increased spending at more vulnerable children. There is an extra €61m for Tusla and €25m for children in Direct Provision, for example.

But the Government has nonetheless left itself exposed to the accusation that this was a missed opportunity.

During the more severe Covid restrictions, front line workers in some cases found they could not work because they simply did not have anyone to mind their children. Many families were reliant on grandparents.

The State had to step in and pay the wages of crèche workers - an acknowledgment of how crucial childcare was for the functioning of the economy. 

"In our view, responding to Covid and responding to the crisis should have meant a response in relation to childcare," said Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI). 

"As a result of the crisis we need to have a different conversation around childcare, we need to see it in the frame of being an essential public service," she said. 

Jennifer Whitmore of the Social Democrats welcomes the increased funding for more vulnerable children, particularly those in Direct Provision, but says it is not right to pitch one group of children against another.  

"Childcare was and is the corner stone of the return of our economy after lockdown," she said adding that this was a "missed opportunity to close the gap in funding that makes Ireland one of the worst performers when it comes to early years investment".

Sinn Féin pointed out that the 4,500 or so childcare providers in the State are not just providing care and education for children, but are small and medium enterprises which are providing jobs in rural areas. The party's spokesperson on public expenditure, Mairead Farrell, said that many of the 27,000 childcare workers are paid the minimum wage despite being highly skilled and qualified professionals.  

"It is clear that the current model of childcare provision in this State is failing everybody. The measures outlined in this Budget have failed they yet again," she said.

Early Childhood Ireland - which represents more than 3,000 child care providers - has said the time for drawing up reports has long since passed.

"We believe the Government already has all the evidence it needs to act," said Director of Policy, Frances Byrne.

"Ireland remains at the bottom of the European league table in terms of investment in early years and it is deeply disheartening to see another missed opportunity to address this, especially as the Programme for Government committed to more investment," she said.

Many opposition politicians believe the absence of further supports in the Budget does not bode well for the prospect of creating a State-run childcare system.

"Ireland has the greatest reliance on private childcare services in the OECD as well as a lower than average level of Government investment," said Labour's spokesperson on finance, Ged Nash. 

"One of the large gaps in today's Budget proposition is the veritable absence of a pathway to creating a better, more decent and fairer childcare model."

While the Government prepares its reports, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has asked that the Government is not judged on childcare based on this Budget but "over a period of time".

Some 4,000 childcare providers, as well as the families of 100,000 children availing of their services, will live in hope.

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