It’s right that coronavirus and what to do about it are dominating the news. But that doesn’t mean other issues affecting working dads don’t matter.
The coronavirus is getting more serious.
I’ve written before about the opportunities that might arise from the inevitable disruption. But as the number of cases rise the dangers are becoming more clear, beyond the obvious human cost.
As with any article about the coronavirus it is important to first point out that the most important thing about it is that it kills. Saving lives has to be front and centre of the reaction from government, business and society more widely. All the while being careful to be proportionate. That second element is vital to parents.
Kids can’t avoid picking up news about the coronavirus and that’s the worst way for them to hear about it. It’s important to keep children up to date with what’s going on, making them wash their hands more, explaining why they need to do so.
They have no more trusted source of news than you. (Most of the time, my kids are convinced I lied about shutting the cat flap the other night.) And if you’ve got Dr Chris and Dr Xand off CBBC to back you up courtesy of this clip, then they basically have to believe you by law.
But something that happened in parliament this week showed there is a danger coronavirus will obliterate other issues. Or indeed that unscrupulous employers may use it as cover to unpick family friendly policies. And I’m not talking about the Budget.
Late on Monday night MPs debated the cost of childcare. That’s a huge issue to almost every working dad and working mum. As demonstrated by the number of people who signed the petition that triggered the debate.
A petition was set up on parliament’s website calling for free childcare to kick in when a baby reaches nine months. That’s the point at which statutory paternity pay, already paltry at £150 per week, stops.
If a petition attracts 100,000 signatures – and most don’t, it’s a high bar – it’s eligible to be debated in parliament. The childcare petition was signed by nearly 150,000 people. And the data showed the signatories came from every constituency in the UK, demonstrating that high childcare costs are an issue for parents in every part of the country.
Ace campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed drew up new research ahead of the debate. Their survey of over 6000 parents found over a third only break even or even end up out of pocket when they return to work because of the cost of childcare. Two thirds had altered their hours, changed jobs or quit work because of childcare costs.
So it’s a huge issue.
A handful of MPs turned up to the debate. There was no more than half a dozen contributions. And two of the speeches, by chair of the Petitions Committee Cat McKinnell and minister Vicky Ford, were mandatory. Instead of 90 minutes of debate it was all wrapped up in around half an hour.
Perhaps precisely because there was so little pressure applied Ford could give a bland response to the petition, essentially dismissing the demands of all those that signed.
Don’t MPs care? That’d be the wrong conclusion. Down the corridor the Health Secretary was giving his latest statement on coronavirus. Not unreasonably most MPs decided that was the more pressing issue.
But coronavirus will pass. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was keen to emphasise in his Budget that the effects will be temporary. When the bug has blown itself out or a vaccine has put a lid on it childcare stress will remain.
I was talking to a Diversity and Inclusion expert this week or told of one company she knew of that had already rolled back its paternity leave policies in the face of the anticipated economic downturn triggered by the health emergency.
Improving paternity policies and embedding family friendly policies benefit all parts of society. We must be wary of employers using whatever storms await us as a nation as an excuse to roll back hard won progress for everyone.
And those of us pushing for better workplace cultures must not feel bad about continuing to campaign even when there are other and more immediate concerns. Even if it makes sense to do so more quietly for a period.
We will come out of the other side of the coronavirus crisis. That moment might be next month, it may be next year. In the meantime we must be wary of backsliding. And when that moment comes we need to be ready to drive forward again armed with the evidence in favour of homeworking and flexible working provided by this volatile but hopefully short lived episode.