The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave Contents

3Support for new parents during Covid-19

23.When the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown became clear, the Government moved swiftly and introduced unprecedented support packages to help prevent mass unemployment and to replace lost income. We recognise the scale of this challenge and the Government’s response. However, as is often the case when major changes are introduced at pace, there has been a lack of clarity about how different groups fit into both the support schemes and the Government’s guidance. Pregnant women and new parents have particularly struggled to understand how the guidance applies to their circumstances, and in many cases this has had unintended and serious consequences.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

24.The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) represents an unprecedented level of state support. While the long-term impact on unemployment will only start to show itself later this year, this scheme has spared many from the immediate threat of redundancy. The scheme allows employers to furlough employees and claim up to 80% of their salary from the Government to keep them on payroll. Whilst it has provided a lifeline to employees in industries that have faced widespread closures due to the lockdown, it also allows organisations to furlough employees who are not currently needed, or who are unable to work, even if the business is still open. This include those who are shielding, or on long term sick-leave.32

Furlough as an option at the end of maternity leave

25.In the Government’s written response to the petition, they stated that women could be furloughed as a means of extending their maternity leave and delaying their return to work. However, when we asked petitioners what options they had been offered by their employers, only 4.4% of respondents had been given this option.33 Using the scheme to extend maternity leave was also not suggested in the Government’s guidance for the scheme.34 Indeed, the Government’s guidance made no explicit reference to those coming to the end of parental leave until June, when the planned closure of the CJRS scheme led to calls for an exemption for those returning from parental leave. While the extension and clarification are welcome, many women have already had to return to work due to financial pressures, or worse had to quit their jobs. This could have been averted for some new parents had there been clear guidance for employers and new parents from the outset of the scheme.

26.The Government has suggested that women can be furloughed as a means of extending their maternity leave and delaying their return to work. However, access to the scheme is reliant on employers’ consent, rather than parents having a right to it, and there are strict limitations to whom it can apply. Many new mothers are not eligible, if their employer has not yet furloughed others, if they work in the public sector, or if their employer needs people back at work. We heard from teachers, police officers and NHS workers who simply did not have the option of being furloughed. For these reasons we do not think it is fair to suggest that it is realistic for many new parents.

27.For those new parents on maternity leave for whom furlough was already possible, the Government failed to make it clear either to them or their employers that it was an option. The Government should publish clear new guidance for employees and employers, including dedicated pages on GOV.UK, on supporting employees returning from parental leave that explains clearly their options and responsibilities.

Health and safety for pregnant women and new mothers

28.New and expectant mothers are offered specific protection under the health and safety legislation to which all employers must adhere, although we have heard evidence that this has not been followed by many employers or made clear enough by the Government during the pandemic.35 The law requires employers to carry out risk assessments, and the Government’s guidance on the rights of pregnant workers states that:

Where there are risks, the employer should take reasonable steps to remove them. For example, offering the employee different work or changing their hours.

The employer should suspend the employee on full pay if they cannot remove any risks. For example, offering suitable alternative work.36

We have heard many examples of it not being applied correctly, and when the Government has been pressed to clarify advice during the crisis, they have often fallen short. For example, no specific reference to this law was made on the GOV.UK Covid-19 advice pages, which employers and employees alike have been relying on heavily throughout.

29.On 16 March the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer announced that, as Covid-19 was a new virus, pregnant women were one of several clinically vulnerable groups. People in these groups were told that they should be particularly careful to practice social distancing, work from home wherever possible and avoid public transport.37 We heard that many pregnant women were swiftly sent home as a result, in some cases being forced onto sick pay, annual leave, unpaid leave or asked to start their maternity leave early. One respondent to our survey said:

My employer has offered me zero help, I’m a support worker who is 30 weeks pregnant and started my maternity at 29 weeks because no help or alternative was offered to me and we have had 7 COVID deaths within the home. I’m so gutted it means missing time when my baby arrives!38

30.This approach has consequences for expectant mothers, including prematurely using up annual or maternity leave entitlements. Maternity Action told us of more profound impacts:

Caller B works as a bank nurse in the NHS and has worked regular shifts at the same hospital for the last three years. The day after the Prime Minister and CMO’s announcement on 16 March, she was told by the nurse in charge that it was not safe for her to work on a ward with COVID-19 patients, and was (unlawfully) sent home without pay (she should have been offered suitable alternative work or suspension on full pay for as long as her assignment would have been expected to continue).

By the time she called our advice line in April, she was 25 weeks pregnant, and had had no income for nine weeks, despite having applied for Universal Credit.39

31.Despite the availability of the CJRS to employers, we have heard from pregnant women who were forced to take maternity leave early, or were put on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), when colleagues in the same jobs were furloughed. One respondent to our survey told us that:

I have had to stop work early, due to being pregnant. I got told I can’t be on furlough therefore I had no choice but to start my maternity leave early. It’s completely unfair, I am losing weeks with my newborn, on a low income and my colleagues are sat at home on 80% of their salary.40

32.While pregnant women were not excluded from the CJRS, they are not referred to explicitly in the guidance for employers. Maternity Action highlighted this oversight to the Government repeatedly, after receiving numerous calls from women who had been refused furlough. They told us that:

There is no mention of pregnant employees in the CJRS guidance and, after their statements were challenged in written Parliament[ary] Questions in both the Commons and the Lords, BEIS ministers now say only that the CJRS guidance does not say that pregnant employees cannot be furloughed. Which, of course, is of no help to those women whose employers are refusing to furlough them.41

33.The Government’s work to ensure premises are safe for workers during the pandemic is welcome. As an at-risk group, there is more that can be done to ensure that employers are aware of their responsibilities for the safety of pregnant women in the workplace, including the need for them to be suspended on full pay if it is not safe for them to work. We recommend that the Government publish clear guidance for employers on their obligations in respect of pregnant women who cannot safely socially distance at work, including making clear that pregnant women have a right to be suspended on full pay if they cannot work safely. We also recommend that the Government extend the furlough scheme to include all pregnant women, so that an additional safety net is available to both pregnant women and their employers.

Issues with Statutory Maternity Pay entitlements due to Covid-19

34.In addition to the immediate consequences of employers failing to meet their statutory obligations in respect of pregnant workers, being put on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or unpaid leave—in many cases when they should have been suspended on full pay—also has implications for entitlements to Statutory Maternity Pay. As SMP has both a qualifying period and a minimum earnings limit of an average £120 week during this period, being placed on SSP or unpaid leave can have serious implications for these women. As SSP is only £95.80 per week, this can push women below the minimum earnings criteria and onto Maternity Allowance instead. Being placed on unpaid leave will have the same effect, and may even prevent new mothers from being entitled to the full rate of Maternity Allowance, if their earnings are low enough. Universal Credit claimants will, as identified in the previous chapter, lose out further when claiming Maternity Allowance as opposed to receiving SMP, highlighting again the problem caused by the unequal treatment of SMP and Maternity Allowance in these calculations.

35.Whilst many women were frustrated that their employers were unwilling to furlough them in order to avoid high risk environments, these situations should never have happened. There are health and safety protections in place for pregnant women and if no safe alternative can be found, they should be suspended on full pay, a fact reiterated to us by the Minister.42 Whilst this information is available on GOV.UK, it was not included anywhere in the Covid-19 guidance pages for vulnerable groups, which individuals and employers have relied on during this unprecedented situation. In addition to the immediate financial consequences for pregnant women of being put on Statutory Sick Pay or unpaid leave—often when they should have been suspended on full pay—in many cases the loss of income that results can also mean women lose their rights to Statutory Maternity Pay. This is unacceptable. Nor should anyone having to spend a period on Statutory Sick Pay or unpaid leave due to following guidelines to isolate, including the new track and trace policy, be penalised for their compliance. The Government was able to amend the Statutory Maternity Pay calculations to disregard the lower income of periods on furlough. We recommend the Government should also do so for women whose incomes have fallen through no fault of their own because their employers have failed to follow the Government’s guidance on how pregnant women should be treated.

The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme

36.Shortly after the creation of the CJRS, the Government announced the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), which provides grants to self-employed workers who meet certain criteria. Whilst this scheme provided some welcome relief to many, there were also significant gaps in provision which have led to a number of petitions calling for changes to the scheme.43 One gap which has received little attention is the effect that periods of maternity leave have on the amount people are able to claim. As the grant is based on the last three years of reported income, a woman who has taken time off for maternity leave and incurred a loss of earnings will receive a smaller grant. Campaign group Pregnant then Screwed explained that this is likely to increase the gender pay gap among the self-employed, which is already at 43%; and increase the likelihood of women’s businesses failing due to lack of financial support. They said:

Women who have taken a year of maternity leave in this time, will see their average profits calculated one third lower than their normal trading profits, resulting in up to one third less income support. Women who have had two periods of maternity leave in the eligible period will be even worse off.44

A petition about this issue calls on the Government to omit the year when maternity leave was taken from the calculation, which would give a fairer representation of usual earnings.45

37.The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme uses three years of tax returns to assess the average income of claimants. Claimants who have undertaken periods of parental leave in these years will not receive support at a level representative of their usual earnings. We recommend that the Government amend the terms of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to take into account periods of maternity and parental leave, to avoid discriminating against new parents.

Extending parental leave and pay for three months

38.We have identified above a number of issues with how pregnant women and new parents are being treated by employers during the pandemic, and are able to access Covid-19 support schemes. The remaining chapters in this report set out some of the challenges faced by new parents in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, and recommends changes that the Government could make to support them. However, the petition that triggered this inquiry had a simple request to Government—extend paid parental leave for three months.

39.On a per person basis the total maximum cost per parent to extend maternity leave for three months with pay would be £1,966.46 For furloughed or self-employed people, the Government is offering the equivalent of up to £7,500 per person for the same period.47 We have estimated that extending SMP would cost around £850 million, based on figures supplied by the Department for Work and Pensions.48 Extending Maternity Allowance for three months would cost a further £108m. A further £8m would allow the extension of Adoption Pay.49 Shared Parental Leave could be included at no additional cost, as uptake of this would be offset by a reduced SMP bill. Extending parental leave with pay for all eligible groups by three months would therefore cost approximately £966 million, assuming full take-up. By comparison, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that the CJRS will cost £60 billion for March-October. The SEISS is expected to cost £15 billion across the same period.50

40.The Government has said that it does not plan to extend maternity leave, saying in its written response to the petition that the offering was already generous and women could be furloughed where needed.51 The Minister repeated these claims in oral evidence to us, despite hearing how many people are unable to access this option and are facing real hardship as a result.52 Many parents were incredulous that after hearing about the experiences of so many, the Minister tweeted to say he still disagreed.53 The Government’s decision to reject the request to extend maternity leave has been hugely disappointing to the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed this petition. In these extraordinary circumstances, where the Government has taken exceptional action to support different groups of people, we believe that extending maternity leave would be a proportionate action to take, in line with the support provided through the CJRS and SEISS. We support the call of more than 226,000 petitioners and urge the Government to reconsider its decision not to extend parental leave and pay for families during the Covid-19 pandemic.


41.Given the Government’s refusal to extend parental leave and during Covid-19, we have also considered other ways the Government can ensure that new and expecting parents are supported by current schemes, and are not unfairly disadvantaged as a result of Covid-19. We have heard a number of examples of pregnant employees or those on maternity leave not having been properly taken into account by those writing the guidance and those designing support systems.54

42.The Government’s guidance to employers has not been sufficiently clear that the CJRS can be used as a means of ensuring expectant mothers are not required to work when it is not safe to do so, and enabling new parents to extend parental leave. This is an oversight that has resulted in financial hardship and a huge amount of stress for many expectant mothers and new parents, at what is obviously already an extraordinarily challenging time.

43.We welcome the announcement of the extension of the furlough scheme for returning parents whose colleagues are already furloughed, however the scheme is no longer available to other new parents or pregnant women, and has significant limitations including whether the employer has already furloughed anyone. It is also down to the choice of the employer and is not a right for employees. The Government must take urgent action and issue clear guidance for employers to ensure that pregnant women and those returning from parental leave are not unfairly disadvantaged.

33 Annex 2

34 HMRC, Check which employees you can put on furlough to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, accessed 22 June 2020. Updated to include information about employees returning from leave added on 12 June 2020 [See Page history].

35 Maternity Action (GRC0023) and Annex 1

36 GOV.UK, Pregnant employees’ rights, accessed 22 June 2020

38 Annex 2

39 Maternity Action (GRC0023)

40 Annex 1

41 Maternity Action (GRC0023)

44 Pregnant then Screwed (GRC0022)

46 13 weeks at the maximum rate of £151.20 per week of SMP, MA, ShPP or Adoption pay.

47 Both schemes have a maximum monthly cap of £2500.

48 This figure is based on the DWP forecasts for SMP in 2020/21 and increasing it by a third. See Table 2 (p12).

49 Based on the 2016/17 figures. See Table 2 (p12).

50 Office for Budget Responsibility, Coronavirus policy monitoring database, 4 June 2020

51 Government response to e-petition 306691, Extend maternity leave by 3 months with pay in light of COVID-19

53 Twitter, Paul Scully MP, Tweet 11 June 2020

54 For example, the advice on furlough for employers: HMRC, Check which employees you can put on furlough to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, accessed 22 June 2020. Updated to include information about employees returning from leave added on 12 June 2020 [see Page history]. Pregnant women are not mentioned.

Published: 6 July 2020