This morning, as Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis prepped for the round of Sunday media interviews Southend’s Conservative party headquarters woke to find scores of empty plates and angry messages outside their front door. Tory MPs around the country reported “deluged” inboxes from outraged constituents and more disquiet is brewing on the backbenches at Westminster. As it is among councillors, many of whom are already aggrieved and increasingly discontent with their populist government’s unpopular policies.
The serial mishandling of the pandemic – since even before the first lockdown – cannot inspire confidence. All predictions are that a long, bleak winter of much discontent lies ahead. The clocks have already turned back and the days are quickly shorter, darker, colder. The annual NHS winter crisis looms and will be compounded by the coronavirus while unemployment grows, businesses close, Christmas is cancelled and Brexit gets done. Even the boosterish prime minister has warned it will be “bumpy”.
However, rather than seizing an opportunity to bring some light to the darkness by committing to feed the country’s children, Boris Johnson’s government and his Conservative party voted against feeding hungry children.
England’s children lose out on meal vouchers
The Northern Ireland executive has extended the scheme. So too the governments in Scotland and Wales. But not in Westminster where on Wednesday 320 Conservative MPs voted against Labour’s motion to provide meal vouchers for England’s hungriest and most at risk children.
In each interview this morning Lewis insisted the government has helped by increasing universal credit and giving local authorities an additional £63 million to help people facing hardship.
Labour have promised to force a second vote on extending the scheme.
Doctors’ shock at govt’s refusal to feed children
Four million children live in poverty in the UK “and around one-third of those reliant on free school meals” say 2,000 doctors who have expressed their shock at the “refusal of the UK government to extend the provision of free school meals in England”.
“Childhood hunger is an issue that should transcend politics”, state UK paediatricians in an open letter published in the Guardian, which reminds that “one of our most basic human responsibilities is to ensure children have enough to eat”.
The letter – which also pays “tribute to Marcus Rashford and his powerful campaigning” – continues: “Good nutrition is at the heart of health, wellbeing and development for children and young people. Without it, children’s health outcomes worsen and, with that, so do their life chances.”
Food vouchers, the doctors state, won’t solve the problem “but they offer a short-term remedy” and should be extended in England – as they have been in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – until the Easter school holiday “at least”.
That the government has decided to double-down on school meals means yet another u-turn is on the cards.
“History repeats,” goes Karl Marx’s well-worn phrase, “first as tragedy, then as farce.”
The tragedy of the first instance is double fold – first that child hunger persists in the world’s sixth wealthiest country, and second, that it takes a 22-year-old football player to force a government to feed children during a pandemic.
The farce of the second is that the very same government has adopted the very same position on the very same issue it did just months ago when it was forced into another u-turn. And now it faces the very same backlash for the disdain shown to around 1.3 million children who rely on school meal vouchers to get fed.