Maternity Action is seeking much clearer guidance on the position of pregnant women during the coronavirus outbreak and protection from dismissal for those forced to self-isolate.
The Government is being urged to provide urgent clarification of its coronavirus-related advice on social distancing for pregnant women and to take immediate steps to mitigate the potentially significant financial consequences for low-income pregnant women who follow the advice and self-isolate.
At his press conference yesterday, the Prime Minister and his advisers clearly included pregnant women among those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 who should self-isolate for 12 weeks, starting this coming weekend.
However, the written Guidance on social distancing for everyone in the UK and protecting older people and vulnerable adults, later issued by Public Health England and published on gov.uk, makes no mention of this 12-week period.
Maternity Action has written to the Government to request clarification, pointing out that pregnant women are, by definition, operating within a fixed, 39-week time frame, so require clearer and more specific guidance on whether – and if so when – to self-isolate. They also, it says, require similarly clear and specific guidance on attendance for scans and other antenatal care while in 12 weeks (or more) of self-isolation.
Maternity Action says it is clear from calls to its advice lines that there is widespread confusion and anxiety among pregnant women about the guidance. It is calling on ministers to make a clear public statement that the dismissal of a pregnant woman simply for self-isolating, in line with the Government’s advice, would amount to unlawful pregnancy discrimination.
It also urges ministers to take immediate steps to mitigate the potential financial consequences for pregnant women who follow the Government’s advice and self-isolate. It says that, given the low level of Statutory Sick Pay, such women risk losing entitlement to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), should their average income fall below the SMP qualifying threshold (the Lower Earnings Limit of £118 per week) during the eight-week SMP qualifying period (weeks 18-26 of the pregnancy).
It says that this would deny them six weeks at 90% pay and that, due to the inequitable treatment of SMP and Maternity Allowance in the calculation of Universal Credit awards, it could result in those who claim Universal Credit and Maternity Allowance being up to £460 per month worse off than those who are able to claim Universal Credit and SMP, who benefit from the ‘earnings disregard’. It calculates that this amounts to a disadvantage of more than £4,100 over 39 weeks of maternity leave.
Maternity Action is also calling for an increase in the level of Statutory Sick Pay, an amendment to the Statutory Maternity Pay (General) Regulations 1986, so as to widen eligibility for pregnant women who are not receiving their normal (or expected) earnings as a direct result of the COVID-19 epidemic; and an amendment to the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, so that Maternity Allowance is treated in the same way as SMP in the calculation of Universal Credit awards, with claimants on Maternity Allowance benefiting from the ‘earnings disregard’ (i.e. the ‘work allowance’ and 63% earnings taper rate).