Boris Johnson challenged over ‘unequal impact of coronavirus on women’

Boris Johnson has come under fire over the lack of female decision makers in the government’s coronavirus response.

The Prime Minister was grilled earlier today by senior MPs on the Commons Liaison Committee about a range of topics including Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham at the height of lockdown and the new test and trace operation being launched tomorrow.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities committee, asked Mr Johnson why females have not been more visible during the response to the pandemic.

She also quizzed the PM about the impact of Covid-19 on women, saying they were more likely to be furloughed and will require support with issues like childcare to help them get back to work.

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Ms Nokes said women are more likely to be placed on paid temporary leave or are ‘more likely to be in sectors where they’ve been shut down’.

She added: ‘They’re also worried about the availability of childcare and their employers making decisions for the future based on which employees might have those challenges.

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‘You have said that you hoped employers would be considerate, but that doesn’t give any legal protection. Do you think optimism is good enough?’

Mr Johnson said: ‘No I think it’s very important that people are given the protections that they need, and we will.

‘It’s true that more women have been furloughed but it’s also true that the furlough scheme is more generous than virtually any other scheme around the world.

‘I can’t think of any other country where people have been given 80% of their wages up to £2,500 per month in the way the UK has done. And we will continue to look after people and to put our arms around our workforce to help them back into work.

‘Your point about the particular vulnerability of female workers is very good because female workers – women workers – I think they have been harder hit by this thing because very often they will have jobs – particularity lower paid jobs – that make it more difficult for them to work from home.

‘That’s why we need to get this thing moving if we possibly can – keep fighting the virus – keep defeating it and helping people get back into work.’

Ms Nokes went on to say that the UK entered the crisis ‘with record female employment’, which she called ‘a fantastic achievement’, but added that in order to come out of it with women able to retrun to work ‘we’re going to need a childcare sector that’s functioning’.

Asked about specific thought given to ‘additional assistance to the childcare sector’, the PM pledged to do ‘whatever it takes to help women get back into work’.

He added: ‘I agree with you, childcare is absolutely critical for the success of our economy.’

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Ms Nokes then went on to earlier remarks by the prime minister ‘that he felt there had been enough female voices in the decision-making processes’, asking: ‘Why have they not been more visible?’

Mr Johnson said: ‘I don’t think I said enough, by the way, I just said that there had been a lot. So you know, I think that it’s certainly true that I would have like to have had more female representation in the press conferences so far.

‘We’ve had – Jenny Harries has been mentioned – Priti (Patel, Home Secretary) has done a few. We will do our best Caroline. And you know, what can I say? Dido (Baroness Harding, in charge of the NHS Test and Trace scheme) will be appearing this afternoon.’

Committee Chair Sir Bernard Jenkin then asked: ‘How much do you think having women in the room when decisions are being made actually changes the nature of those decisions?’

The PM replied: ‘I think it can make a huge difference – a huge difference. That may sound like a vaguely sexist thing to say, but it’s very important.’

Asked by Ms Nokes ‘how many is enough’, he laughed briefly before adding: ‘That’s a question on which I’m not confident to pronounce.’

After she inquired whether it was not 50% Sir Bernard politely reminded Mr Johnson ‘it’s not a joking matter’.

Mr Johnson said: ‘It’s not, and all I say Caroline is that it’s incredibly important to us as Conservatives and we have more – 50% would be great – we have large numbers of female MPs of great talent including yourself in the House of Commons now.

‘And never forget it’s only the Conservative Party that’s produced two female Prime Ministers. Maybe you’ll be the third.’

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