Although the government’s initial response to Marcus Rashford’s open letter to MPs was a polite yet patronising rebuttal, Boris Johnson made a spectacular U-turn just days later. The Manchester United player who grew up in poverty and knows what it is like to depend on the vouchers made a case for solidarity, calling on MPs to address the UK child poverty issues, at least during the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some extracts from the letter:
“This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?
Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now. Whilst 1.3 million children in England are registered for free school meals, one quarter of these children have not been given any support since the school closures were ordered.
This is a system failure and without education, we’re encouraging this cycle of hardship to continue. To put this pandemic in to perspective, from 2018-2019, 9 out of 30 children in any given classroom were living in poverty in the UK. This figure is expected to rise by an additional 1 million by 2022. In England today, 45% of children in Black and minority ethnic groups are now in poverty. This is England in 2020…
The Government has taken a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to the economy – I’m asking you today to extend that same thinking to protecting all vulnerable children across England. I encourage you to hear their pleas and find your humanity. Please reconsider your decision to cancel the food voucher scheme over the Summer holiday period and guarantee the extension.
This is England in 2020, and this is an issue that needs urgent assistance. Please, while the eyes of the nation are on you, make the U-turn and make protecting the lives of some of our most vulnerable a top priority.”
The letter won the support of teachers’ unions and education leaders as well as from Labour MPs and some Conservatives. By Monday night, it had gathered so much momentum that the PM could only reverse the decision to cease the free school meal voucher scheme during the summer holidays.
As a result, 1.3 million children will now receive them and families facing into a summer of food poverty can breathe a sigh of relief. Although Marcus Rashford has won the praise of many, he insists that the focus should be on solving the issues rather than on him.
Speaking to the Guardian, Erica Edwards, a single mum from Greater Manchester said:
“For some families, I know who are really struggling, these vouchers will mean that their child will get to have a hot meal every day.”
Downing Street has announced that families who are entitled to the meal vouchers would receive £15 per week for their supermarket spend. The government is providing this support as a one-off voucher at the beginning of the six-week summer holiday break. Wales and Scotland are also extending the scheme to run throughout the summer while Northern Ireland is likely to follow suit.
Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign has once again put UK food poverty in the spotlight with many arguing that, although welcome, this short-term government support measure won’t suffice in addressing the food poverty issues in post-pandemic Britain.
Joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney, told the Guardian:
“There should never have been any hesitation on the part of government. The hardship and struggle under our current benefit system and support for those living in poverty will not end with the containment of this virus. Covid-19 is a natural phenomenon – poverty is not.”