Working parents should be placed on furlough if schools are closed, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has urged.

The body’s chief, Frances O’Grady, warned that few employers are aware that they can place staff on furlough for childcare needs.

Schools across the UK are taking a staggered approach to the return to teaching after the Christmas break, sparked by the new variant of Covid-19, which is believed to be more transmissible among younger people. It also comes as teaching unions call for schools across England to close, rather than just London and the south east, where the new variant is strongest.

The TUC said employers should “do the right thing and furlough mums and dads”.

Frances Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “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.”

The TUC said its research on the first lockdown showed that one in six mothers reduced their working hours because of school or nursery closures, adding that single parents were more likely to be affected.