Boris Johnson today hinted at another climbdown on free school meals during holidays as furious Tories accused him of ‘shooting himself in both feet’ by bungling the policy.
The PM insisted he was ‘very proud’ of the way the government had supported families during the pandemic, including handing £63million extra to councils and increasing universal credit.
But Mr Johnson also sounded a conciliatory tone in the face of the campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford, vowing children would not go hungry due to government ‘inattention’.
‘We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas. Certainly not as a result of any inattention by the government – and you are not going to see that,’ he told reporters on a visit to a hospital in Berkshire.
Mr Johnson also confirmed that he has not spoken to England star Rashford since June, when the government staged its first humiliating U-turn, despite claims from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that they had been ‘communicating’.
The government is scrambling to find a way out of the latest bitter wrangle, with Tory MPs furious at the ‘shockingly inept’ handling and threatening to help Labour change the policy.
One furious backbencher said the PM’s advisors setting up a photo opportunity today of Mr Johnson doling out sausage sandwiches was an example of the disastrous PR, saying it was ‘one cock up after another’.
A petition by Premier League footballer Rashford calling for funding of free school meals during holidays has gathered around 900,000 signatures.
Businesses have been pitching in by offering food for distribution to those in need.
Meanwhile, protesters have been leaving empty plates outside local Conservative offices, while Rishi Sunak and other senior politicians have been banned from some firms in their constituencies.
The row escalated on another helter-skelter day of coronavirus developments including:
- Welsh ministers have apologised after a ‘trolley police’ crackdown led to Tesco wrongly telling women they could not buy sanitary towels because they were ‘non-essential’ items;
- Matt Hancock has fuelled hopes self-isolation will be slashed to seven days, despite Nicola Sturgeon saying she has ‘no plans’ to do so;
- The UK’s outbreak has slowed significantly since the start of the month, suggesting the latest suite of lockdown restrictions are successfully flattening the second curve.
Boris Johnson posed in a canteen at a hospital today as the row over free school meals provision during holidays raged
The PM enjoyed a cup of tea at Royal Berkshire Hospital as he was accused of failing to stop vulnerable children going hungry
Marcus Rashford, who is reported to earn £200,000 a week at Manchester United but struggled to get enough food as a child, arrives at the club for training today
However, Rashford seemed unaware of the contact from Mr Johnson, suggesting on Twitter they had not spoken since a previous U-turn in June
Staff at the Rumour Cafe in Sheerness, Kent, prepare free school meals for children over the half term holidays today
Sandwiches being made at The Watering Can in Greenbank Park, Liverpool, for distribution to children during the school holidays
Former ministers are leading a Conservative revolt on free school meals as they warned the PM he must think up ‘something better’.
As many as 100 Tory MPs have been sharing angry messages over the Government’s handling of the campaign, describing it as ‘shockingly inept’, a ‘political disaster,’ and ‘hopeless communication’, according to The Times.
Downing Street sources now say that work is being done on more support for eligible pupils outside of school term time.
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Hancock said he understood Mr Johnson and Rashford had been in touch.
‘There has been communication between the two, as far as I understand it,’ he told BBC Breakfast.
‘We have all seen what Marcus Rashford has done, and the way he has conducted himself in this campaign I think is absolutely exemplary.
‘He is making an argument based on his personal experience for the benefit of people who really need that support.’
But Rashford seemed bemused by the claim, responding on Twitter: ‘Hmm, unless he’s referring to the call we had following the u-turn in June?’
And Mr Johnson said later: ‘I haven’t spoken to Marcus since June but what he is doing is terrific.
‘We support the local councils – indeed we fund the local councils and many of the organisations that are helping in this period – but we are also uplifting Universal Credit by £1,000 and we think that is one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time.
‘I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger, it is there, we have to deal with it.
‘The debate is how do you deal with it. We are very proud of the support we have given, I have said repeatedly throughout this crisis that the government will support families and businesses, jobs and livelihoods, across the country.
‘We’re going to continue to do that.’
Tories are seething even more privately than in public, as the PM is accused of ‘one cock up after another’.
One furious MP told MailOnline they blamed Dominic Cummings for the failure to win support for the policy.
‘This wonderful guru who is a great tactician. Oh yeah? Explain all the cock ups we have had, one after another. He will bring Boris down. He has got to go,’ the MP said.
‘I would have been difficult to plan such a cock up. It’s got to go down as the worst communications. They have provided the money, done all the right things – but you wouldn’t know that.’
The MP pointed to the photo op today of Mr Johnson doling out sausage sandwiches as an example of a disastrous PR move.
‘They have found a way to shoot themselves in both feet at the same time, while doing the right thing on policy,’ they said.
The Tory added that if Mr Johnson swallowed his pride he could still defuse the situation.
‘You would have thought the PM would have met Rashford and said this is really good, this is what we have done,’ the MP said.
‘But they hate being told they have done something wrong. They have to be forced kicking and screaming.
‘They are going to do some kind of U-turn. They just don’t know how to do it. There is no political nous.’
Another MP pointed out that the messaging had been disastrous, even though the policy was broadly right.
‘We were badly late with the messaging, so when the PM says kids won’t go hungry because of the extra funding and the Universal Credit £1,000 uplift it is being drowned out…
‘It would probably have been way cheaper to have given the voucher to be honest. And now we will probably end up with both.’
Asked during his round of broadcast interviews earlier whether urgent extra government measures are needed on free school meals, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Well, I accept and I strongly believe that we should all come together to ensure that no child should go hungry.
‘That’s the central insight behind what Marcus Rashford is arguing for, and I think he’s making the case just with such strong eloquence and speaking authentically from personal experience, and I think that’s something that we should all get behind.’
He added: ‘I think that working together with central government providing funding, which we’ve done, the councils often know on the ground how best to get to the children who need support most and people as individuals.’
Pressure was heaped on Mr Johnson yesterday as Labour leader Keir Starmer announced that he will force another Commons vote on the issue before Christmas.
And senior Conservatives made clear they could line up behind the motion this time, with some saying they ‘regretted’ supporting the government in a decision last week.
Former children’s minister and Tory MP Tim Loughton called on the Government to extend free school meals through half term and ‘probably’ into the Christmas holidays.
Staff prepare free lunch bags for collection at Pho in Bristol today, which is providing free school meals for children
A chef prepares food for free lunch bags at Pho in Bristol today as they provide free school meals for children
A staff member wearing a face mask prepares lunch bags for collection at Pho in Bristol today
Collette Roche, Manchester United Chief Operating Officer (left), John Shiels, Manchester United Foundation, Chief Executive (centre) and Miranda Kaunang, FareShare Greater Manchester – Head of Development, preparing food at Old Trafford today
Collette Roche and John Shiels of Manchester United preparing food in the kitchens at Old Trafford today
He told BBC 5Live today: ‘It’s not a matter of a U-turn. The Government has given unprecedented amounts of money during the pandemic.
‘The total bill is now over £215bn, of which a large amount is on welfare measures, not least a £20 extra on Universal Credit which is really, really welcome.
‘Let’s just do it over half term and probably into Christmas and that would continue doing a lot of good.
‘I think it’s just so much easier, it’s a simple and effective method that you carry on free schools meals.’
The East Worthing and Shoreham MP added that there is a ‘concern’ in Government that the funding would be open-ended and added that he does want it to become a ‘permanent commitment’.
Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council Izzi Seccombe said the council had a £500,000 scheme through the Covid-19 period to help those who are in need.
A boy leaves Weoley Community Centre after collecting free packed lunches that are being given out in Birmingham today
Staff and volunteers at the The Plough pub in Homerton, East London, prepare sandwiches as part of the effort to provide free school meals today
Staff and volunteers at the The Plough pub in Homerton, East London, prepare free school meals for children today
A child collects packed lunch bags from the Watering Can, in Greenbank Park, Liverpool, today
‘Through this scheme we will be able to support those in need next week through the free school meal offer and we’ve committed to Christmas as well,’ she said.
Asked if the Government funding in June had been spent, she said: ‘Yes we’ve spent that money, as I say over half-a-million pounds has been spent already.’
Asked if local government would be able to further fund free school meals, she added: ‘It’s tight. We are going to be funding it ourselves now because there isn’t money in there to support it, so we will be trying to find it from other sources.’
She told the Today programme: ‘I think the main thing for us is what we don’t want is people within Warwickshire feeling anxious, feeling worried and children going hungry during this half-term period. We have a scheme, we can support it – well we’ll find means of supporting it – and for that it will help people to get over this particular week.
She added: ‘It’s all about priorities isn’t it… we think it is a priority for us.’
The government’s own Social Mobility Commission released a statement today urging more action.
‘We know that the current pandemic is having its greatest impact on the poorest regions in Britain where people are already struggling to afford food for their families,’ it said.
‘Our recent report – The Long Shadow of Deprivation – identified some of the ‘coldest’ social mobility spots in the country and many of these are now in the higher tiers of Covid restrictions.
‘Our earlier research this year showed that 600,000 more children are in poverty than in 2012.
‘We believe the government should do all it can to start reversing that trend. It should begin by ensuring that all children are properly fed.
‘But it needs to go much further. We now need a much more ambitious programme to combat child poverty.’
Shadow education secretary Kate green said: ‘Warm words from Boris Johnson will do nothing for the over 1.4 million children at risk of going hungry this half term that he and his MPs refused to help last week.
‘Labour will not not give up on the children and families let down by this government, and we will hold the Prime Minister to his word, forcing another vote in Parliament if necessary.
‘The government must now make children a national priority, and ensure that no child goes hungry.’
Sausage, mince and eggs are prepared to go into food parcels at Angus Morton Butchers in Richmond, North Yorkshire, today
Vikki Long from the Barkers of Richmond fish and chip shop in North Yorkshire prepares a serving for children today
Dom Palacio, Head of Community at Richmond Rugby, delivers meals to local school children living in a block of flats on the Ivybridge estate in Twickenham, South West London, today
A chef from the St Giles Trust Brewbird cafe prepares hot food packages for people in need of free school meals, in London today
Volunteers from Richmond Rugby prepare to deliver meals to local school children in Twickenham today
As Tory angst built yesterday, Liaison Committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin warned that the Government has ‘misunderstood’ the mood of the country over free school meals.
He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: ‘I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.
‘The public want to see the Government taking a national lead on this. I think the Government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.
‘When you have got the chairman of the Education Select Committee (Robert Halfon) not supporting the Government on this – and he’s a Conservative – I think that the Government has to listen to the Conservative Party.’
Asked how he would vote in any further Commons divisions, Sir Bernard said: ‘I shall wait to see what the Government says and how they respond to the situation.’
Defence Committee chair Tobias Ellwood was asked on Times Radio if he regretted voting with the government last week.
England star Marcus Rashford helped out at FareShare in Greater Manchester last week as he continued his campaign
Pressure was heaped on Mr Johnson yesterday as Labour leader Keir Starmer announced that he will force another Commons vote on the issue soon
‘I suppose, yes, if I’m honest about it,’ he said.
‘I regret the way the debate came about because one thing that is happening here is we’re losing the national resolve if you like.
‘Politicians and the politics of this whole Covid-19 I’m afraid is not going in the right direction.
‘The more parties work together and support a collective direction of government the easier it is to manage an enduring emergency.’
The children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield delivered an excoriating condemnation of the spat yesterday, saying it was like ‘something out of Oliver Twist’.
Ms Longfield said she had been ‘horrified and really disappointed’ by the recent debates over the extension of free school meal vouchers for vulnerable children.
‘We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020,’ she told Sky News.
‘To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist – a novel published in the 19th century.
‘Let’s stop the divisive and distracting conversation, and let’s start focusing.’
But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis defended the Government’s stance.
He said ministers had increased Universal Credit and were providing £63million to local authorities to help people in their communities at a time of hardship.
‘I know this is a very emotive issue. It is a sensitive issue. It is something that affects families in my constituency as well as round the country. I think the position we have taken is the right position,’ he told Sky News.
‘What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need.’
In the letter organised by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), the doctors say they are ‘shocked’ by the government’s refusal to extend the scheme to children from low-income backgrounds in England during upcoming school holidays.
The college has called for the government to match pledges made by authorities in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – who have agreed to extend the schemes across the Christmas, February and Easter breaks.
Speaking about the letter, Professor Russell Viner, President of the RCPCH, said: ‘I’ve rarely seen such anger among our members.
‘We care for children who don’t have enough to eat. We see far too many of them.
‘It is heartbreaking that it has become a normal part of our jobs and hunger is all too common for millions of families in the UK.
‘There is an opportunity to put this right. It is pointless to talk about levelling up the country, an ambition which we support, while refusing to offer temporary relief to children and families.’
The college says there are four million children living in the UK in poverty with the pandemic ‘entrenching this reality’.
Bosses say children ‘desperately need government support’ and that, while food vouchers will not solve the problem of child poverty, they do offer a short-term remedy for children that don’t have enough to eat.
Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Improvement at the RCPCH said: ‘We’re a rich country. This isn’t about money, it’s about making sure people have food to eat, and it’s about doing the right thing for children who need a hand up.
‘We shouldn’t have to fight for food vouchers when we’re in the middle of a pandemic.’
It comes as a petition by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford (pictured with his mother Melanie while helping at a food bank in Greater Manchester) has reached more than 800,000 signatures
Senior Tory MPs Bernard Jenkin (left) and Tobias Ellwood (right) are among those criticising the government’s policy
Manchester United player Marcus Rashford has been calling for school meals to be funded over the school holiday until Easter 2021