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U.K.’s Johnson Signals Retreat in Row Over Free School Meals

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 10/26/2020 Emily Ashton

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson signaled he is preparing to back down in a row over paying for free meals for the poorest children in England, saying he would make sure no child “goes hungry this winter”.

But the U.K. premier did not commit explicitly to extending free school meals over the holidays, promising instead that families would be supported through local councils and the welfare system.

“We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this government and you’re not going to see that,” Johnson said in a televised interview on Monday.

The prime minister has faced days of pressure to act, including from his own Conservative lawmakers, as businesses and community groups rushed to back a campaign from England soccer star Marcus Rashford to provide free food during this week’s half-term holiday.

Rashford leads the “Child Food Poverty Taskforce” which warns that 32% of families have lost income as a result of Covid-19, and predicts demand for food banks this winter will be 61% higher than last year. A petition to the government put forward by Rashford had been signed by about 900,000 people as of Monday afternoon.

Going Hungry

Johnson’s failure to set out details on exactly how children will be kept from going hungry is likely to anger some colleagues who have pushed for immediate action to limit the political damage. The row began last week when the government rejected a motion from the opposition Labour party on offering state-funded food to poor pupils during the holidays until Easter 2021.

Labour’s education spokeswoman Kate Green branded Johnson’s comments “warm words” that would “do nothing for the over 1.4 million children at risk of going hungry this half term”. She said Labour would force another vote in Parliament in the coming weeks if necessary.

Henry Dimbleby, who co-authored a government-commissioned plan to overhaul school food, added to pressure on Johnson by publicly backing Rashford’s campaign on Twitter.

Johnson praised Rashford’s “terrific” efforts and insisted he understood the issue of “holiday hunger”, but added: “The debate is, how do you deal with it.”

He said the government had increased Universal Credit, the monthly welfare payment, and had given local councils 63 million pounds ($82 million) in June to help people struggling to pay for food. That funding, however, wasn’t specifically dedicated to meals for schoolchildren.

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League © Photographer: Michael Regan/Getty Images Europe Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League

Marcus Rashford started a Twitter campaign to provide free food during this week’s half-term school break.

Photographer: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Previous Retreat

Many Conservative MPs are now facing intense public anger on social media and in communities over their vote. One shop owner in Lancaster, northwest England, banned his local MP, David Morris, “for life”, according to a sign in his window, and another MP told how his mother had received threats on the phone.

Former Conservative minister Caroline Nokes told the BBC on Sunday the government would have “to take another look at it”, adding: “I think it has to be quick and I think it has to be very, very clear.”

Former minister Tim Loughton, who abstained in last week’s vote, wrote on Facebook that he would lobby the government to reverse the decision by the Christmas break. “I still think it would have been easier for the government to continue with the free school meal holiday entitlement in these unprecedented times,” he said.

Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already extended free school meals during the school breaks.

Johnson has found himself on the wrong end of a Rashford campaign before. When the England striker led a drive to provide free meals for Britain’s poorest children over the summer break, the premier eventually bowed to public pressure. Rashford was later given an honor by Queen Elizabeth.

(Adds reaction in seventh, eighth paragaphs, and further context throughout)

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