Ministers have been accused of treating pregnant women as an afterthought after failing to directly respond to a series of letters from a charity and two medical royal colleges calling for more support for expectant mothers.
Charity Maternity Action said it had not had received a reply from the Treasury, despite writing to the chancellor in October and again last month.
The organisation warns that too many women are being forced to choose between unsafe working conditions, unpaid leave and quitting their jobs.
Together with two royal colleges dedicated to the health of pregnant women, they wrote to Rishi Sunak calling for amendments to the furlough scheme to support employers to suspend pregnant women on full pay from 28 weeks.
The government itself has warned pregnant women that after 28 weeks they should take a more “precautionary” approach, amid fears they are more at risk of suffering serious illness if they catch Covid-19.
Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said: “We wrote jointly with the Royal College of Midwives and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which are national organisations with expert knowledge of the health risks faced by pregnant women.
“It is deeply disappointing that the government has not replied. The government has consistently treated pregnant women as an afterthought in their response to the pandemic. Back in March 2020, the government declared pregnant women to be a vulnerable group, but has failed to take the steps necessary to offer genuine protection for this group of women.
“We are seeking a modest amendment to the furlough scheme which could be speedily implemented and which would offer protection to pregnant women at a time when they are at increased risk of severe illness and hospitalisation from Covid.”
The charity’s advice line has heard from many pregnant women whose employers are failing to provide safe working conditions for them.
Ms Bragg said: “It is not good enough for the government to tell women to take their employers to the employment tribunal. Few pregnant women and new mothers have the time, money and emotional resources to do this.”
Treasury sources pointed to an answer minister Jesse Norman gave in the House of Commons earlier this month, in response to a Liberal Democrat MP who asked directly about the Maternity Action call.
Mr Norman said that covering maternity suspension “would go beyond the objectives of the (furlough) scheme”.
But he said that the extra support businesses have received in grants, loans, tax deferrals and other schemes “can be used by businesses to … [ensure] they can suspend pregnant employees on full pay.”
It is understood Mr Norman also wrote to Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, about the call by Maternity Action and the colleges at the start of December.
Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, one of the signatories to the joint letter, urged the chancellor to act.
“About two-thirds of pregnant women who have Covid-19 don’t have any symptoms, and those who experience symptoms will usually have mild or moderate cold and flu-like symptoms. Although it is uncommon, some pregnant women will experience severe illness and it is more likely to happen in later pregnancy. That’s why they need to be offered protection,” he said.