The UK government has warned airlines to act with “social responsibility” as MPs and unions hit out at British Airways’ move to cut jobs and change terms and conditions while workers are on furlough.

In response to an urgent parliamentary question on Wednesday, aviation minister Kelly Tolhurst said she regretted the “distressing” news of redundancies by BA, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet, potentially amounting to more than 19,000 job cuts.

“These are commercial decisions and they are decisions which I regret, particularly those companies benefiting from the job retention scheme” she said. “The scheme was not designed for taxpayers to fund the wages of employees only for those companies to put the same staff on notice of redundancy during the furlough period.”

The minister was responding to a question by transport committee head Huw Merriman, who accused BA of “effectively sacking” its 42,000-strong workforce and “replacing it with 30,000 jobs on inferior terms”.

The fresh scrutiny of BA follows an April announcement that the carrier could cut up to 12,000 jobs and change employee terms and conditions, weeks after agreeing a deal with unions to furlough more than 30,000 staff.

Unite, whose members include BA workers, said the move was “deplorable”, while Mr Merriman accused the company of using the coronavirus pandemic as a “justification to slash jobs and employment terms”.

He urged the government to request an urgent review into the possibility of reallocating landing slots, from “companies like BA who indicate they are downsizing” to those “that wish to expand and take on workers”.

He said the government should also change the job retention scheme to stop employers using it while putting their staff on redundancy notice.

Ms Tolhurst said the government was “legally prevented from intervening” in slots allocation, but added that she would seek to “ensure that the slots allocation process encourages competition and provides connectivity”.

It would be for the Treasury to review the specifics of the job retention scheme to ensure it was not used to pay the wages of staff placed on redundancy notice, Ms Tolhurst said.

“In matters of crisis like this you would hope that all organisations who are taking these measures with their workforce would treat their employees with the social responsibility you would expect them to have,” she said.

“I will be doing everything I can in my power in order to make sure that that is understood.”

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BA said it was acting to protect as many jobs as possible while the industry faced the “deepest structural change in its history”, but stressed negotiations over the cuts were ongoing.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA’s parent company IAG, last week wrote to the UK prime minister saying that he did not anticipate the airline’s business returning to pre-pandemic levels until 2023 at the earliest.

He added that in April the airline had operated 1,784 flights, almost 94 per cent down on the same month last year.

“We will do everything in our power to ensure that BA can survive and sustain the maximum number of jobs consistent with the new reality of changed airline industry in a severely weakened global economy,” he wrote.

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