Boris Johnson has admitted he only became aware of Marcus Rashford’s free school meal campaign today – a day after the footballer wrote to MPs.
The admission follows the government’s U-turn – following pressure from Manchester United and England forward Rashford – in announcing a one-off £120 million fund which will benefit 1.3 million children in England over the six-week summer period.
Rashford had written to all MPs on Monday morning imploring them to make the government reverse its decision not to award free school meal vouchers in the summer.
Rashford’s letter, and a subsequent interview on the BBC, stirred huge public interest.
However, Johnson admitted at Tuesday’s coronavirus press conference in Downing Street: “I talked to Marcus Rashford today and congratulated him on his campaign which, to be honest, I only became aware of very recently – today.”
The prime minister had been responding to a journalist asking if he has “lost touch” with the public.
He went on: “I thank him for what he has done. I think he is right to draw attention to this issue, and basically we’ve got large numbers of kids who haven’t been able to get back into school.
“I do think it’s right that we should be looking after families of the most vulnerable and the neediest right now and that’s why we have got the COVID summer food plan, which we’ve announced today, and I hope it will make a big difference to those kids and those families.”
The Food Foundation has estimated a third of children on free school meals have not had adequate alternative options during the coronavirus crisis.
Earlier on Tuesday, Johnson’s official spokesman confirmed the U-turn as he announced the “COVID Summer Food Fund” to reflect the fact families face an “unprecedented situation” over the holidays.
It is understood payment will be through a one-off six-week voucher given to eligible families at the end of term to use in supermarkets.
The scheme will not continue beyond this summer, Downing Street added.
Following the news, Rashford wrote in a statement addressed to MPs: “This was never about me or you, this was never about politics, this was a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country and I simply provided a platform for their voices to be heard.
“I stand proud today knowing that we have listened, and we have done what is right.
“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.”
The 22-year-old had previously joined forces with food charity FareShare and helped to raise £20 million to feed schoolchildren during the pandemic.
Rashford, who is one of United and England’s star players, is now joint-favourite to win the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.