The UK’s Conservative Government was sold a dummy by 22 year old Marcus Rashford, a football (soccer) start who plays for Manchester United and England.
Showing more charisma that the entire government and opposition parties combined could muster, the young goalscorer successfully motivated public opinion and lobbied the government to reverse its plan to suspend the provision of supply free meals for children from poorer families during the traditional summer break. Under the coronavirus lockdown arrangements schools had remained open for children whose parents were working during lockdown and could not afford childcare, or whose incomes were not sufficient to cover the additional costs of providing extra food for children while laid off from their jobs.
In the UK children eligible for free school meals because their families are unemployed or on low incomes, have received food during the coronavirus lockdown, in some cases by attending school dining rooms but often in the form of vouchers to spend at supermarkets.
This scheme was scheduled to end at the time schools would normally have closed for the summer break, and been reviewed in accordance with prevailing circumstances before school terms resumed in September. In a letter “written from the heart,” Rashford pleaded in reasoned and articulate terms for the scheme to continue through the summer because it is now clear that although the lockdown has been eased to some extent, the situation will not return to anything like normal for several more months at least.
Rashford’s letter surprised many people because football players are not usually noted for their debating skills. However the star consolidated his newly earned reputation by successfully outmanoeuvreing the government.
In a string of tweets on Tuesday, the England star urged politicians: “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown…
“And when you head to the fridge to grab the milk, stop and recognise that parents of at least 200,000 children across the country this morning are waking up to empty shelving.”
But the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey hit back, tweeting: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”
Her short response indicated the campaign officially dismissed by the government but when it was backed publicly by two Conservative MPs prompted a speedy reply.
Rashford wrote back: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference.” Social media picked up on the argument and spontaneously started a national campaign. Soon it was clear that public opinion was with Rashford.
Realising they had lost this one, The Prime Minister’s office announced on Tuesday that £3million will be providede to fund extending the free school meal voucher system in England over the summer holidays in a reversal of its previous pledge to end them. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said that the government “fully understands” that the children and parents are facing an “unprecedented situation over the summer”.
“To reflect this, we will be providing a Covid summer food fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six week holiday period”.
“The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals. As the PM has said it is our intention, to get all pupils back into school in September”, the spokesperson said.
Marcus Rashford declared victory by saying that this is what can be achieved when “we come together”.
The opposition Labour Party, after itself calling for the funding for the provision of free school meals, supported the decision. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer welcomed the move and praised Rashford for his work.
A Conservative cabinet minister praised Rashford’s interest in child welfare in the UK as “great.” In an interview this earlier today, Grant Shapps agreed with Sky News host Kay Burley that the government’s decisions had been put to shame by a footballer.
“I know he’s written to the PM who will doubtless write back to him as well”, the Transport Secretary said.
He explained that it is usually not the case that free school meals are provided over the school holidays.
“But we have actually unusually in this case, along with all the other billions, multi-billion pound package we’ve put in place to help families, also provided £63m exceptionally to help local authorities help children over this period”, he added.
Several Conservative MPs had called on Johnson to “do the right thing” and extend the school meal programme.
Commentators also questioned why the government was picking a fight over such an indefensible policy when it was already on the back foot over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Rashford, 22, earned praise from politicians, charities and mainstream media for his campaign. He said he was proud to have used his celebrity status to help “vulnerable parents”.
“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,” he added.
After writing to Boris Johndon and other MPs the prolific goalscorer wrote in The Times newspaper that he understood personally how much free school meals mattered to children receiving them.
“Ten years ago, I was one of them. I grew up in a low income family inn Manchester and know what it feels like to be hungry,” he wrote. Ahead of a parliamentary debate called by the main opposition Labour party, he urged MPs to put aside their political differences and back his campaign.
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