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Boris Johnson to give councils extra funds for holiday clubs to end free school meals row

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has been campaigning for free school meals

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. Jeremy Selwyn/Pool via REUTERS 
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. Jeremy Selwyn/Pool via REUTERS 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to hand councils extra money for holiday clubs, trying to end a row with Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford over free school meals.

Mr Johnson is studying a proposal to extend the Holiday Activity and Food programme, tested during the summer so children could be provided with at least one free meal a day outside term time, the Telegraph reported.

A national version of the scheme was estimated to cost £200 million ($260m) a year, the report said.

It could be combined with extra study time for children still catching up after schools were closed in the spring. The news comes as most of the £63m the government had provided local councils in summer to help the poorest in society was thought to have already been spent.

About 1.3 million children are eligible for free lunches at schools in England.

In the school summer holidays, the government gave them food vouchers after a campaign by Mr Rashford to provide extra support during the coronavirus crisis.

But last week it voted not to do the same during a week-long school break at the end of October.

That decision has put pressure on Mr Johnson, who defended the government's stance on Monday.

"We will do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays," he said, describing Mr Rashford's efforts as "terrific".

“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,” he added.

Adding to the government's embarrassment, businesses and charities across England on Monday offered free meals for children. Britain’s devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already introduced food voucher schemes for their schoolchildren.

Some MPs who voted against the free meal bill have also been banned from local establishments, such as shops, pubs and cafes.

Mr Rashford said the backlash demonstrated that the UK public cared about hungry children. A petition started by the Manchester United and England striker calling for food provision to stretch into the October holiday had gained more than 900,000 signatures by Monday evening.

Defending its decision not to extend the free meal scheme, the government also said it had provided £63m to local councils – announced in the summer - to help the needy who have difficulty affording food and other essential items.

Mr Johnson said: "We are very proud of the support we have given, I have 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.”

Health chief Matt Hancock echoed the prime minister’s views, adding: “I also think that it’s brilliant that the councils are coming forward, having been funded by central government – £63m has gone to councils so that they can ... support people and make sure that everybody and every child gets the support that they need.”

It is believed, however, that the vast majority of local authorities have already spent the bulk of their allocation, which was intended to cover areas hit hardest by coronavirus. According to the Guardian, the government’s own guidance on the money, provided on July 10, said: “The government anticipates that most of the funding will be spent within 12 weeks.”

And the Local Government Association said the £63m had been ringfenced to be spent before the end of September and had long since been overtaken by demand.

Updated: October 27, 2020 05:48 PM

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