UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has executed a humiliating U-turn over free school meals for the poorest families in Britain over the summer, announcing a new £120 million voucher scheme after pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford.
Just hours before Labour was due to force a vote on the issue in the House of Commons, risking a rebellion from Conservative backbenchers, the prime minister’s official spokesman announced a new £120 million “Covid summer food fund”.
“Owing to the corona pandemic, the PM fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer,” he said.
The U-turn came after ministers repeatedly rejected the idea of extending the scheme over the summer, as they did over the Easter break.
Asked if Rashford’s pleas had helped to change the prime minister’s mind, his spokesman said:
“The prime minister welcomes Marcus Rashford’s contribution to the debate around poverty, and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a sportsman to highlight important issues.”
He said families entitled to free school meals would receive a one-off voucher at the end of the school term, worth £15 a week for the six-week school break, which they can spend in supermarkets.
Rashford had stepped up his campaign to pressure the UK government into feeding hungry children during the school holidays.
He responded to Tuesday’s news with a tweet: “I don’t even know what to say.
Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
Labour was seeking to maximise the government’s embarrassment and force a U-turn, by using an opposition day debate in the House of Commons to hold a vote on extending the voucher scheme.
On Tuesday morning, the Manchester United player began tweeting about the UK’s poorest families, who cannot afford to pay their water and electricity bills or put food on the table.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Halfon commended the government for helping vulnerable families by raising the living wage, cutting taxes for lower earners and extending the freeze on fuel duty.
But he said carrying on with the free school meals programme “would be the right thing to do” as the latest figures show “2.5 million children are not learning” while away from school and food insecurity has “nearly doubled”.
Halfon added: “There are lots of food programmes across different government departments.
If they just consolidated those programmes, they would almost have the money for the free school meals programme over the summer, which would cost roughly GBP110m.”