Boris Johnson insisted that no children would go hungry due to “inattention” by his Government as he faced a backlash over the refusal to provide free school meals in England over half-term.
The Prime Minister hinted at extra support, promising to do “everything in our power” to tackle holiday hunger over the winter and the upcoming Christmas break.
Thousands of free meals were being provided to children by businesses, local authorities and community groups on the first day of half-term after the Government refused to reintroduce the vouchers scheme used over the summer break.
Dozens of people from a range of organisations, including Conservative-led councils, have stepped in to help, but Mr Johnson insisted Government support to local authorities and charities had helped.
A petition from footballer Marcus Rashford, who has been spearheading demands for free meals to be extended in England over the school holidays, has attracted almost 900,000 signatures, piling pressure on the Government to act.
Mr Johnson, speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading, said: “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 are not going to see that.”
The Prime Minister said he had not spoken to Rashford since June “but what he is doing is terrific”.
He said: “We support the local councils – indeed we fund the local councils and many of the organisations that are helping in this period – but we are also uplifting Universal Credit by £1,000 and we think that is one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time.
“I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger, it is there, we have to deal with it.
“The debate is how do you deal with it.”
Universal Credit had been increased by £20 a week while £63 million has already been provided by central Government to local authorities to support them.
Downing Street hinted that Chancellor Rishi Sunak could announce extra support next month, pointing to comments from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that “the spending review sets out any future funding on behalf of the Government”.
Manchester United star Rashford has used his social media profile to highlight examples of businesses that have pledged to help with meals for local children.
Rashford’s club, in partnership with the Manchester United Foundation and the charity FareShare, will provide around 5,000 meals from the Old Trafford kitchens to children from local schools.
Firms stepping in to help include Barry’s Tearoom in Cumbria, Greenfields Farm in Telford, The Watering Can in Liverpool, Jordan’s Cafe in Worthing and Count House Cafe in Cornwall.
Rashford’s campaign also received backing from Henry Dimbleby, the Leon chain co-founder and head of the Government-commissioned National Food Strategy.
Conservative-led Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council said it would be providing food parcels for families from Monday, tweeting: “No child should go hungry.”
Announcing almost 3,300 youngsters would receive £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the cost of meals during the holiday, Kensington and Chelsea council, which is also Tory-run, said: “No kid should go hungry.”
Other Tory-controlled councils getting on board include Hillingdon, which is in Boris Johnson’s constituency, Medway and Wandsworth, with the latter approving a £10,000 food voucher scheme.
Warwickshire County Council’s Tory chief Izzi Seccombe told Today that money from Whitehall was “tight” and “we are going to be funding it ourselves now”.
“What we don’t want is people within Warwickshire feeling anxious, feeling worried and children going hungry during this half-term period,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer has sought to exploit the disarray in the Conservative ranks by confirming Labour will force another Commons vote on the issue if ministers do not relent in time for the Christmas holidays.
Former minister Tobias Ellwood told Today it would be “churlish” not to act, adding: “I would like to see Boris Johnson look at this issue again, recognising the wealth of support across the nation, the fact that we all want the same thing – let’s not forget this generation of children have actually had their lives impacted in ways not seen since the war.
“The pandemic has been tough, difficult winter ahead, let’s make sure we have a programme in place which all parties can agree with.
“If that’s utilisation of the free school meal holiday provision, then so be it.”
Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin has warned the Government had “misunderstood the mood of the country” and would probably have to think again.
Former children’s minister Tim Loughton, who abstained in last week’s vote on the issue, said he would vote against the Government if it came to the Commons again.