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No free school meals at half term, says Government

Ministers found themselves embroiled in a free school meals scandal this week - but have still committed to not providing food to hungry children outside term time

Schools should not give out free school meals in the February half term, the Government has said, just two days after a photo of a child’s meagre food parcel sparked anger across the country.

While schools in England have been working with caterers to provide home food deliveries to poorer pupils in lockdown, new government guidance states that “schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half term”. 

“It is simply astonishing that the Government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic,” Kevin Courtney, National Education Union joint general secretary, said in a statement.

“This week, Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson made public statements about how appalled they were by the quality of food parcels shared on Twitter. But that is put in the shade by today’s confirmation that yet more disruption to free schools meals could lie ahead in half term. These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought.”

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Instead councils should use the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to set up support for families in need in February, the Department for Education guidance said.

The £170 million funding package was announced in November only after campaigner and England footballer Marcus Rashford lobbied for better support for hungry children.

“Suggesting that local councils will be able to recreate a brand new system of supplying free school Meals for the week of half term using the Covid Winter Grant Scheme is an unnecessary logistical nightmare, and the confusion and chaos this could cause will put millions of children at risk,” Courtney added.

Louisa Britain, whose photo sparked the latest round of debate over government support for children during lockdown, called the news “the industrialisation of cruelty” on Twitter.

Writing for The Big Issue before the news, Britain said: “I suppose the first thing I would be asking for, if the Prime Minister were sat across from me now, would be to make a commitment to supporting all of the country’s more vulnerable children, throughout the duration of the pandemic and any recession following. 

“We could, and I believe should, end this rolling cycle of promising support for a short time, then seeking to end it, over and over.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced £15 food vouchers would be reinstated from to replace the frugal food parcels – only after Rashford spoke with the Prime Minister. 

But despite a similar scandal over the school holiday in October – when businesses across the country were forced to open their doors and give away free meals to school children, the Government refusing to extend free school meals over the five days – the vouchers will not be made available to cover half term.

“Time and time again this government has had to be shamed into providing food for hungry children over school holidays,” Labour’s shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq MP said.

“Stopping Free School Meals support over half-term will be devastating for many families who are living on the breadline in this pandemic.

“The Prime Minister’s claim to be morally outraged at images of woefully inadequate food parcels will ring hollow for parents who are worried about whether they will be able to put food on the table for their children over half-term.”

Millions are anxiously awaiting the reintroduction of the national food voucher scheme after weeks of difficulties trying to get food parcels, Courtney said. 

“The anguish, not to mention hunger, this decision could cause is immeasurable. Ministers should hang their heads in shame and, unless they reverse this decision, never again speak of their concern for disadvantaged children,” he added. 

“Their actions show very clearly that they do not care.”

 Nearly one million children signed up for free school meals for the first time in 2020 after the Covid-19 crisis pushed more families into poverty.