Boris Johnson has been forced into a humbling U-turn over providing food vouchers for some of England’s poorest families after a campaign launched by the footballer Marcus Rashford threatened to engulf his government in another crisis.
In an embarrassing about-face, the prime minister said that on Tuesday he had called the England and Manchester United striker to explain the reversal, and made the remarkable claim that he had only become aware of Rashford’s interest in the issue earlier in the day.
Yet 24 hours before, No 10 had rejected the footballer’s plea for it to keep paying for the £15-a-week vouchers over the summer, and ministers had been sent out to defend the government’s position. But with Conservative MPs threatening to rebel against the government, Downing Street retreated and announced a new £120m “covid summer food fund” for 1.3 million pupils in England.
Appearing at the coronavirus daily briefing on Tuesday, Johnson said he had called Rashford, 22, to congratulate him on his campaign. “I thank him for what he’s done,” he said.
Rashford, who has written about the food poverty he experienced as a child, said of the reversal on Twitter.: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
Later, he posted a second statement saying the campaign was a way of issuing a cry for help from vulnerable parents all over the country.
“I stand proud today knowing that we have listened, and we have done what is right. There is still a long way to go but I am thankful to you all that we have given these families just one less thing to worry about tonight.
“The wellbeing of our children should ALWAYS be a priority,” he wrote.
The policy change was announced just hours before the government was expected to argue against feeding hungry children during the summer at an opposition day debate.
Until then, Downing Street had argued it would not award free school meal vouchers in England outside term time.
Asked if Rashford’s pleas had helped to change Johnson’s mind, his spokesman said: “The prime minister welcomes Marcus Rashford’s contribution to the debate around poverty, and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a sportsman to highlight important issues.”
He said families entitled to free school meals would receive a one-off voucher at the end of the school term, worth £15 a week for the six-week school break, which they could spend in supermarkets.
Scotland and Wales would also continue with the voucher programme, while Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, said she would be proposing that the scheme be extended over the summer “if the necessary finances can be secured”.
On Monday, after Rashford had written an open letter asking the government to reverse its policy, Downing Street said Johnson would respond “as soon as he can” and a Department for Education spokesman said the national voucher…