Parents should be given furlough support if they cannot work as their children’s schools are closed, Keir Starmer has said.
The Labour leader backed calls from union bosses to support mums and dads facing childcare emergencies following the last-minute decision to shut schools.
The TUC wants employers to “do the right thing” by furloughing working parents affected by school closures during England’s third lockdown – announced a day after Boris Johnson insisted it was safe to send children back to school.
Parents are already eligible for furlough support if they cannot work due to caring responsibilities.
But this is at the employer’s discretion, rather than being a legal entitlement.
Asked if he backed calls for furlough payments for mums and dads, Mr Starmer said: “Yes that has to happen.
“The general principle should be that where there are health restrictions there needs to be an economic package that supports that.
“Because of the decision last night for a national lockdown there is now a mismatch and that has got to be addressed – and that means for working parents.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “For many working parents today is going to be a really tough day because they are going to have to be at home with their children when they would otherwise be at work.”
The Labour leader called for a return to a “March-style” lockdown, with a clear order for the public to stay at home and strong support for schools and businesses.
Mr Starmer also raised concerns about the digital divide, with poorer students struggling to access laptops and reliable broadband.
He called for political pressure to be ramped up on tech firms to provide free or subsidised data for children studying at home.
“Data is a big problem. Everybody needs to try and make this work and that includes the companies that can take away the charging for data,” he said.
The TUC expressed concern that many parents will be forced to take unpaid leave to care for their children – or even be forced to leave their jobs – as not all bosses were aware that caring responsibilities are an acceptable reason to furlough.
General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With many schools closed, many families will be frantically trying to find a way to balance their work and childcare commitments.
“Without further action, many will have no choice but to cut their hours or take unpaid leave from work. This will lead to further hardship and will hit mums and single parents hardest.
“Employers must do the right thing and furlough mums and dads who can’t work because of childcare responsibilities. And the government should give all parents the right to work flexibly plus ten days’ paid parental leave each year.”
On Tuesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a fresh £4.6 billion support package for businesses hit by enforced closures.
It includes one-off top-up grants worth up to £9,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, many of which have been devastated by repeated closures.