Boris Johnson has admitted he hasn’t spoken to Marcus Rashford since June – but has praised the footballer’s “terrific” food poverty campaign.
The Manchester United forward is leading a high-profile campaign for the expansion of free school meals and also for the provision of meals during all school holidays for those in need.
The government has so far refused to bow to growing pressure over the issue, despite having previously performed a U-turn prior to the summer holidays when they provided meal vouchers to around 1.3 million children in England.
Despite not extending the voucher scheme for this October half-term – and having resisted calls to extend the scheme until Easter next year – Mr Johnson on Monday vowed that ministers “will do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays”.
He added: “I haven’t spoken to Marcus since June but, as I say, I think what he’s doing is terrific.”
Earlier, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the pair had “been communicating”, although Rashford disputed this via a post on his Twitter account.
Some local councils, including Conservative-run local authorities, have pledged to continue the holiday voucher scheme in recent days.
And small businesses and organisations have offered meals to struggling families in their local areas.
Amid concerns at his stance from some of his own Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson said there was a “debate” over how best to provide holiday meals for children during the coronavirus crisis.
He pointed to the government’s uplift of Universal Credit and a £63m fund for local councils announced more than four months ago.
The £20 a week increase to Universal Credit is scheduled to end in April, while the leader of one Conservative-run local authority has said any extra support for councils during the coronavirus crisis had already been spent.
But, during a visit to Royal Berkshire Hospital on Monday, the prime minister defended his government’s efforts to support those who are struggling as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We support the local councils and, indeed, we fund the local councils and many of the organisations that are helping in this period,” he said.
“But we’re also uplifing 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’re very proud of the support that we’ve given, I’ve 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. We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas.
“Certainly not as a result of any inattention by this government. You’re not going to see that.”
Mr Johnson had visited the hospital to mark the publication of a new review into hospital food.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the prime minister’s “warm words” would “do nothing” for those children at risk of going hungry this half-term, after Tory MPs last week voted against her party’s call for the provision of free meals during all school holidays until next Easter.
“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,” Ms Green added.
“The government must now make children a national priority, and ensure that no child goes hungry.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) said that many councils had already used up their hardship funds to support local households.
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s resources board, said: “Short-term hardship funding provided by the government this summer helped councils try and provide much-needed crisis support to all households – including those without children – struggling to afford food but also fuel and other essentials.
“Demand for support from households facing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 has outstripped this funding now and councils are having to find money from stretched budgets to top it up.
“This is increasingly difficult as they continue to face rising costs of providing services – such as adult social care, protecting children and housing rough sleepers – and income losses as a result of the pandemic.
“As many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come, it is vital that the government restores local welfare funding so councils can provide preventative support to all households who need it.”
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Earlier, Welsh Secretary Simon Hart admitted the row over free school meals had “caused a lot of stink” but said the government was trying to “find creative ways to help people”.
He told Sky News: “The idea that we would simply continue with free school meals ad infinitum – the measure which we brought in during the Easter and summer holidays – we’re trying to find ways of actually making the help which is available to families who are hardest hit as long-term and as 365 days a year as possible, not just the school holidays.”
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