NHS surcharges for migrant workers. The A-level results fiasco. The evictions ban. The government has been forced to make U-turn after U-turn by repeatedly finding itself on the wrong side of issues that should never have been up for debate. The free school meals debacle before the summer did nothing to dispel the notion that this Boris Johnson-led government is not only devoid of compassion and decency but tone-deaf, too – riddled with a political ineptness that Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling would be proud of. Here was a government, in the midst of the global pandemic, refusing to feed more than one million children.
It was only after Marcus Rashford’s high-profile intervention that the government finally relented and made an embarrassing and entirely avoidable about-face. It is barely believable, then, that the Prime Minister is now set to withdraw the scheme again. We are facing further restrictions that Johnson has said will last for at least six months and huge swathes of the country are already enduring even tougher measures. The Chancellor’s replacement for furlough may offer some respite to businesses and workers, but millions of people could still lose their job or see their income fall dramatically. Things are set to get harder, not easier, for families already struggling.
The situation could not be more stark. More than 200,000 children have had to skip meals because their family could not access sufficient food during lockdown, and 2.4 million children are living in food insecure households. The Trussell Trust has forecast that there will be a 61% increase in food parcels needed between October and December, and warned that extreme poverty could double by Christmas. Yet the government is now refusing to extend the free school meal voucher scheme over the autumn half-term and Christmas holidays.
The government has said its holiday activities and food programme underlines the commitment to tackling holiday hunger. Yet this ‘commitment’ covers only 17 local authority areas and has not yet been extended for the autumn half-term and the Christmas holidays. Even if it was renewed, the programme would remain a postcode lottery when we desperately need a system that ensures every child in our country has enough to eat. It does not matter if a child lives in Sheffield or Southend – if they have not got enough to eat, they have not got enough to eat.
It is not just the school holidays where a child’s access to a proper meal is being rescinded. As the Co-operative Party has highlighted, due to a lack of clear guidance from the government, self-isolating pupils could also be going hungry because they aren’t receiving free school meals. Given that one in five schools has had Covid-19 cases, this could be affecting a significant number of children across the country. The government needs to step up and guarantee free school meals for self-isolating pupils. If not, children who have already faced months of disruption to their education could face a fortnight of hunger.
I would agree with those who say we need a long-term, permanent solution to this issue. We cannot go from school holiday to school holiday repeatedly appealing to the government to make the right decision. Even before this pandemic, child poverty and hunger were rising exponentially and it is clear that the government must look to embed a free meals scheme on a permanent basis all year round, irrespective of postcode.
The call by the child food poverty task force to fund three national food strategy policy recommendations, including the expansion of free school meals to every child from a household on Universal Credit, must be enacted. But this could take months of campaigning to achieve, which means we must also focus on the immediate necessity to prevent holiday hunger this autumn half-term. We have two weeks to ensure that 1.4 million children are fed.
This pandemic has devastated the lives and livelihoods of our residents. Families have lost all or some of their income. Businesses that have taken years of hard work to build up have had to close overnight. The tragic result of this will be more children living in poverty and more children not having enough to eat. This is true irrespective of whether it is term time or during the school holidays. Child hunger does not stop for the school holidays.
Sign our petition, ‘Boris Johnson: Child hunger does not stop for the holidays – extend free school meals’.