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Working parents trying to balance work and childcare should be put on furlough while schools are closed, the umbrella body for UK trades unions says. Bosses may not be aware that they can use the scheme to support parents, according to the Trades Union Congress.

Many families would be “frantically” looking for a solution, the TUC said, after the decision to start the new term late or online for many pupils. Employers must “do the right thing and furlough mums and dads”, the TUC said.

All secondary schools will remain closed to students this week, except for the children of key workers such as NHS staff. Students are expected to return on a staggered basis from 11 January.

Most primary schools are open to pupils from Monday, except in London and parts of the south east of England where the spread of a new, more infectious, strain of coronavirus is already high. However, decisions over whether it was safe for pupils to return to school in person were still being discussed over the New Year holiday weekend, leaving parents with little time to find support.

“Without further action, many will have no choice but to cut their hours or take unpaid leave from work,” said Frances Grady, general secretary of the TUC. “This will lead to further hardship and will hit mums and single parents hardest.”

According to the rules of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, first introduced nine months ago, firms can furlough parents unable to work due to a lack of childcare.

The TUC said its research showed that in March, when schools were closed during the first period of lockdown, one in six mothers reduced their working hours due to school and nursery closures. It said single parents were also more likely to be affected.

Self-employed parents should also be given support through access to the self-employed income support scheme, the TUC said. It is calling for employees to be given a right to paid parental leave and flexible working beyond the current crisis.

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