Marcus Rashford campaign: Boris Johnson makes u-turn on school meals

16 June 2020, 13:31 | Updated: 16 June 2020, 13:33

EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure and extended the Government's food voucher scheme for children after a campaign started by footballer Marcus Rashford garnered widespread support.

The Prime Minister announced that the scheme would be extended in the form of a one-off voucher from the Covid Summer Food Fund.

Conservative MPs joined Labour and a host of prominent figures in supporting Rashford's calls for the Government to extend into the summer holidays the current food voucher scheme for children who receive free school meals.

The scheme was set up to effectively guarantee meals to those children who would have ordinarily been reliant on free meals during the coronavirus lockdown.

The Government had initially resisted calls to extend the scheme, but following huge pressure, reversed their decision on Tuesday.

As we reported yesterday, Manchester United and England forward Rashford, who raised £20million to boost food distribution with the charity FareShare, expressed concern that the plan to end the scheme next month will affect some of the most vulnerable in society.

The 22-year-old's calls were supported by a growing number of figures following his open letter to the Government asking them to reverse their decision to end the scheme with Labour launching a Holidays Without Hunger campaign at the weekend.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the Prime Minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.

"To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund.

"This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.

"This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic.

"The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals."

It is understood payment will be through a one-off six week voucher given to eligible families at the end of term to use in supermarkets.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said the measure would impact some 1.3 million children in England.

Referring to Mr Rashford, he said: "The PM welcomes his contribution to the debate around poverty and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a leading sportsman to highlight important issues."

The cost will come to £120 million in additional funding, Downing Street said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted: "This is another welcome u-turn from Boris Johnson.

"The thought of 1.3 million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable.

"Well done to @MarcusRashford and many others who spoke out so powerfully about this issue. #HolidaysWithoutHunger".

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on Tuesday that the Scottish Government would be extending its free school meals project throughout the summer holiday period.

Rashford was embroiled in a Twitter spat with Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey after she responded to one of his tweets.

Making his point in a series of tweets this morning, the footballer wrote: "1. When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown."

But Ms Coffey bluntly replied: "Water cannot be disconnected though."

Rashford hit back, saying: "I'm concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference."

Ms Coffey later posted: "I welcome your passion for supporting children and the most vulnerable in society - a passion we share. We are working to the same aim. I & this Govt will continue to actively help and support families and businesses through this emergency and beyond."

Tory MP George Freeman was among those supporting the scheme, branding free school meals a "lifeline."

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the remark as "snarky," and others said her response was "heartless."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told LBC he thought Mr Rashford was doing "great work" on his campaign, but that the Government has responded by spending "tens of billions" by "wrapping our arms around the British people" via the furlough scheme and payments to local Government bodies instead.

Almost 1.3 million pupils are eligible for free school meals.

"I don't claim to have the education of an MP in parliament, but I do have a social education," the footballer wrote in The Times newspaper.

"I am clued up on the difference a U-turn decision would make on the 1.3 million vulnerable children across the UK who are registered for free school meals because ten years ago I was one of them."

While a Department for Education spokesman has said the national voucher scheme "will not run during the summer holidays", Boris Johnson's official spokesman says the Prime Minister will respond to Mr Rashford's letter "as soon as he can".

The campaign received a further push on Monday night when Gary Lineker came out in support of it and urged the Government to consider the struggles of impoverished families during the coronavirus crisis.

"Obviously these are strange times. Kids wouldn't ordinarily be fed during the summer holidays, I understand that. But you've got to look at it and go 'These are very, very difficult times for a lot of people and a lot of families'," the former England striker and Match of the Day presenter said.

"There are a lot of young people, young children, in this country that are going hungry. And in a country like ours, a country of quite substantial wealth, that seems to be largely unacceptable.

"Hopefully the powers that be will listen. It seems strange that we have to be in a position where we are desperately arguing to try to get young people fed, and stop them being hungry."

Mr Rashford, who has raised £20 million to boost food distribution with the charity FareShare, has said he used food banks and received free meals during his underprivileged childhood in Manchester.

Mr Lineker also praised Mr Rashford, saying: "When you look at it, though, he's a 22-year-old footballer. He shouldn't be the one having to do this. But the fact that he is, is important. It's impressive. He's a very fine young man, and he's a credit to his sport and his family."

The voucher scheme provides £15 worth of vouchers a week for each eligible child, which can be redeemed in a range of supermarkets.

The Welsh Government has said free school meals will continue in Wales through the summer.

The Department for Education spokesman also said thousands of children would also receive "additional support through our Holiday Activities and Food programme, which offers activities and free meals throughout the summer holidays".