Free childcare for Australian children has cost the federal government about $131 million a week.
A Senate inquiry into the government’s coronavirus response has heard the plan for free childcare is on track to cost about $1.6 billion for the 12 weeks until June 28.
So far, about $917 million has been spent.
Education department officials were unable to say how much would be spent on childcare subsidies in a usual quarter, but said this year had originally been costed at about $8.3 billion.
It comes as a government review of the first month of its emergency free care arrangements, released on Tuesday, has found almost all of the nation’s 13,400 childcare services are still operating.
The survey found that before the funding package kicked in, attendance more than halved for three in 10 centres.
A further five in 10 had attendance fall between 20 and 50 per cent.
The problems were even more pronounced for after school hours care, where more than three-quarters of services had at least half their children pull out.
Under the special arrangements, the government is guaranteeing childcare operators their taxpayer funding as it stood in late February – about half their usual revenue – plus the JobKeeper wage subsidy to those eligible.
But they can’t charge parents the usual gap fee.
The review found about three-quarters of centres said this was keeping them financially viable.
Seven in eight services had applied for JobKeeper.
Of those who didn’t apply, about a third were run by independent schools or not-for-profits like Anglicare and weren’t eligible but can now access top-up funding.
Some services that were eligible found the wage subsidy didn’t cover many of their staff.
In general, centres were able to meet the demand for places although some were doing so at a loss.
On average, attendance was less than two-thirds of pre-virus levels.
Many centres worried about meeting the increased demand for places and having more children attend as the economy starts reopening.
They wanted a month’s notice before the system reverted.
Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government would keep a close eye on this.
“The four-week review into the package makes clear that we need to begin planning for increased demand for places as businesses re-open and more people return to work,” he said.
“The review suggests a need to consider how the relief package can support economic recovery, supporting parents to get back to work and study, and children’s early childhood education and wellbeing.”