More than a million of England’s poorest children will get free meal vouchers over the summer holidays after a massive Tory U-turn.
Boris Johnson dramatically caved in today to demands from campaigners and 22-year-old footballer Marcus Rashford.
As Labour hailed “another U-turn”, the jubilant sports star tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
The Manchester United and England star captured hearts with a moving letter describing his own upbringing by a single mum – and urging to PM not to let kids go hungry.
Pressure had mounted as the government refused to heed his demands, instead promising a £63m pot for councils to help struggling families.
The council pot also had to cover other “basic essentials” and wouldn’t guarantee a daily meal for every poor child.
But now the government has U-turned and poured an extra £120m, on top of the £63m pot, into a one-off “Covid summer food fund”.
The fund will extend the current system of supermarket vouchers, which are given to parents of poor children who can’t attend school due to the virus, for six weeks over the summer break.
It’s thought parents will be offered a one-off voucher to cover all six weeks of the summer holiday, worth £15 per week per child.
The vouchers will then come firmly to an end in September, when the government hopes all school pupils will be back in the classroom.
All those who currently qualify for free school meals due to their household income will qualify – the same criteria as for the current voucher system.
The summer holiday vouchers apply to England only, but vouchers have already been extended over the summer in Scotland and Wales.
The money is “additional funding agreed by the Treasury “, No10 said.
Boris Johnson announced the change in a meeting of the Cabinet – hours after his own ministers Grant Shapps and Therese Coffey insisted on standing by the policy.
Exactly 24 hours after refusing Marcus Rashford’s plea, the PM’s official spokesman said today: “The PM welcomed Marcus Rashford’s contribution to the debate around poverty.
“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.
“Full details will be set out shortly, but 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.
“As the PM has said, it’s our intention to get all pupils back into school in September.”
Sir Keir said: “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 Marcus Rashford and many others who spoke out so powerfully about this issue.”
The screeching U-turn came just hours after the government bullishly defended its plans to end free meal vouchers over the summer holidays.
It is embarrassing for Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey – who launched into an argument with the footballer hours before her own government’s U-turn.
In a plea to MPs he tweeted: “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 DWP chief Ms Coffey replied: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”
While it’s illegal for water firms to cut off water from private homes, the heating can be cut off – meaning hot water wouldn’t be available.
The U-turn is also a humiliation for Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who spent the morning insisting it was “great” Marcus Rashford had raised his point – but refusing to accept the point itself.
The row had been bubbling for weeks but exploded into life thanks to the intervention of the 22-year-old England forward.
In a letter to MPs, he said he was one of five children. He wrote: “My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough.
“The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.
“As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches.
“Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year.
“It’s only now that I really understand the enormous sacrifice my mum made in sending me away to live in digs aged 11, a decision no mother would ever make lightly.
“This summer should have been filled with pride once more, parents and children waving their flags.
“But in reality, Wembley stadium could be filled more than twice with children who have had to skip meals during lockdown due to their families not being able to access food.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesman admitted the U-turn was thanks directly to Rashford, saying: “The Prime Minister welcomes his contribution to the debate around poverty, and respects the fact he’s been using his profile as a leading sportsman to highlight important issues.”
But it also came hours before a three-hour House of Commons debate that would have seen Tory backbenchers line up to urge a U-turn.
This breaking news story is being updated.