Can an employer reject an applicant for a maternity leave cover role on the basis that the applicant is herself pregnant and will not be able to work for the full cover period?

No, an employer cannot reject an applicant for a maternity leave cover role on the basis that the applicant is herself pregnant. Under s.18 of the Equality Act 2010, if an employer treats a woman unfavourably because she is pregnant, this will amount to unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The legislation does not exclude employment on fixed-term contracts.

Further, there is European case law that makes it clear that failing to recruit a woman on the grounds of pregnancy, even if the contract is for a fixed term only and she will not be able to work the full period, constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under the Equal Treatment Directive (76/207/EEC) (now the recast Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment Directive (2006/54/EC) and cannot be justified.