MPs have called for parental leave for all new parents caught up in the coronavirus pandemic to be extended by three months, amid warnings over job losses and childcare arrangements.
In a report published on Monday, the Commons petitions committee warns that Covid-19 has led to new parents missing out on “crucial support” and some experiencing severe mental health problems.
This includes missing out on visits from health professionals and a lack of access to mental health services, dentists and doctors, all of which have been limited by the nationwide lockdown.
Prompted by a petition calling for maternity leave to be extended by three months, signed by 226,000 people, the committee’s inquiry found that some parents are at risk of losing their jobs due to a lack of childcare.
With family members and childminders unable to help out during the pandemic, the report says that many of signatories of the petition were unable to find the support necessary to allow them to return to work.
While the Government has suggested that women could be transferred onto furlough when their maternity leave ends, the committee warns that this in fact “was rarely offered” and is no longer available to “the majority of those returning to work in the coming weeks and months.”
Setting out a series of recommendations, the committee has urged ministers to extend maternity, shared parental and adoption leave for tens of thousands of people affected by Covid-19.
At present, women are able to take a year’s maternity leave and receive statutory pay for 39 weeks, while parents using shared leave are entitled to 50 weeks with 37 weeks’ pay between them.
The report says that a three month extension with pay would cost approximately £966m if all eligible groups took up the offer, noting that the cost is dwarfed by the estimated £60bn due to be spent on the Government’s furlough scheme.
However, with ministers recently rejecting the demands on the grounds that the UK already has one of the most generous schemes in the world, committee chair Catherine McKinnell said their response had “fallen far short of what is needed.”
“This pandemic is having a huge impact on families and it is clear from the evidence we have taken the huge additional challenges this crisis has presented for many people on maternity, parental and adoption leave,” she added.
“The Government must urgently provide much needed additional support for new parents to prevent the effects of the pandemic having a lasting and damaging impact for years to come”.
With redundancies expected to surge in the coming months, the report says that “clear new guidance” should be issued for employers and employers on their rights and responsibility to prevent companies unlawfully discriminating against new parents.
In addition, the committee recommends extending the period in which mothers and new parents are able to bring claims before an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal from three months to six.
It also calls for new and expectant mothers to be given a six month extension to their year’s free dental care entitlement, noting that many have been able to use due to practices being closed during.
With many parents unable to call on expert health support during the crucial first few weeks of parenthood, the committee says the Government should review and consider increasing funding to increase the number of health visitors available to vulnerable families.
And it argues that parents with babies in neonatal care wards should be given priority testing, after finding that many have been unable to spend time with their newborns because they are in the shielding category or have developed symptoms.