Johnson makes U-turn on free school meals after Rashford campaign

‘Covid summer food fund’ announced after pressure from footballer and campaigners

Boris Johnson has been forced into a humbling U-turn over providing food vouchers for some of England’s poorest families after a campaign launched by the footballer Marcus Rashford threatened to engulf his government in another crisis.

In an embarrassing about-face, the prime minister said that on Tuesday he had called the England and Manchester United striker to explain the reversal, and made the remarkable claim that he had only become aware of Rashford’s interest in the issue earlier in the day.

Yet 24 hours before, No 10 had rejected the footballer’s plea for it to keep paying for the £15-a-week vouchers over the summer, and ministers had been sent out to defend the government’s position. But with Conservative MPs threatening to rebel against the government, Downing Street retreated and announced a new £120m “covid summer food fund” for 1.3 million pupils in England.

Appearing at the coronavirus daily briefing on Tuesday, Johnson said he had called Rashford, 22, to congratulate him on his campaign. “I thank him for what he’s done,” he said.

Rashford, who has written about the food poverty he experienced as a child, said of the reversal on Twitter.: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

I don’t even know what to say.
Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.

— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) June 16, 2020

Later, he posted a second statement saying the campaign was a way of issuing a cry for help from vulnerable parents all over the country.

“I stand proud today knowing that we have listened, and we have done what is right. There is still a long way to go but I am thankful to you all that we have given these families just one less thing to worry about tonight.

“The wellbeing of our children should ALWAYS be a priority,” he wrote.

Map of free school meal uptake in England

The policy change was announced just hours before the government was expected to argue against feeding hungry children during the summer at an opposition day debate.

Until then, Downing Street had argued it would not award free school meal vouchers in England outside term time.

Asked if Rashford’s pleas had helped to change Johnson’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 could spend in supermarkets.

Scotland and Wales would also continue with the voucher programme, while Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, said she would be proposing that the scheme be extended over the summer “if the necessary finances can be secured”.

On Monday, after Rashford had written an open letter asking the government to reverse its policy, Downing Street said Johnson would respond “as soon as he can” and a Department for Education spokesman said the national voucher scheme was not being extended.

After the reversal, Gary Lineker, the TV presenter and former England striker, who had supported the campaign, tweeted: “Great to see @ManUtd’s number 10 changing policy at number 10. Extraordinary campaign and win for the brilliant @MarcusRashford.”

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, welcomed “another U-turn” from Johnson, weeks after the prime minister allowed the families of migrant NHS cleaners who died from coronavirus to stay in the UK.

“The thought of 1.3 million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable,” Starmer said. “Well done to Marcus Rashford and many others who spoke out so powerfully.”

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, who wrote to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, last week about the need for a change in policy, thanked the footballer.

“Today’s announcement will help many families, but there will still be 4 million children living in poverty, a number that could increase following the covid crisis.”

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “There should never have been any hesitation on the part of government. The hardship and struggle under our current benefit system and support for those living in poverty will not end with the containment of this virus. Covid-19 is a natural phenomenon – poverty is not.”

Johnson faced pressure from senior Conservative backbenchers including the former minister George Freeman and the chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon. One senior party source said that more than 30 backbench MPs had told whips they were considering voting against the government.

On Tuesday morning, Rashford began tweeting about the UK’s poorest families, who cannot afford to pay their water and electricity bills or put food on the table.

One cabinet minister was criticised after correcting one of Rashford’s tweets, in which he said: “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.”

Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, replied: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”

Rashford’s reply noted: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference #maketheuturn.”

Graphic: Percentage of free school meals claimed in 2019

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, spent Tuesday morning rejecting Rashford’s demands in media interviews. He told Radio 4’s Today programme it was “great” Marcus Rashford had raised his point, but refused to accept the point itself.

Labour sought to maximise the government’s embarrassment by using the opposition day debate in the Commons to discuss the voucher scheme after Johnson’s policy change.

Conservative backbenchers urged the prime minister to continue to focus on child poverty if he wanted to shore up party support in so-called “red wall” seats.

Paul Maynard, the Tory MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said the change in policy announced in parliament by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, should be an opportunity for the government to tackle financial insecurity.

“We have an obligation not just for an economic recovery from coronavirus but a social recovery too. And I would hope that what the secretary of state has announced is a first step in that,” he said.

Football rivals to Manchester United also praised Rashford, who last week supported the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Manchester City tweeted: “Fantastic work MarcusRashford, making Manchester proud.” Liverpool FC wrote: “Children in our region will benefit because of the actions of this remarkable role model.”


Rajeev Syal, Heather Stewart and Helen Pidd

The GuardianTramp

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