Boris Johnson has suggested the government will offer more support for free school meals, saying he does not want to see children going hungry at Christmas, as councils expressed bemusement at government claims that they have funding to support disadvantaged children.
Both Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, provoked anger by pointing to the £63m in funding given to local authorities to deal with coronavirus-related issues. Council leaders said that was not enough to cover providing meals for impoverished schoolchildren.
The government’s own guidance on the £63m, which was disbursed on 10 July , said: “The government anticipates that most of the funding will be spent within 12 weeks” – a period that has expired.
The Local Government Association said demand for help had “outstripped this funding now” and that councils which were providing meals were doing so out of their own budgets.
That sum was also intended to help disadvantaged people with needs such as heating. Councils say they have faced a cumulative £8bn in costs and lost income due to coronavirus, which has not been fully met by central government.
Speaking on Monday, Johnson praised the work of the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford for highlighting the issue and said the government had also given extra cash to councils. However, he hinted more help would come for the Christmas holidays.
“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 on a visit to a hospital in Reading.
“We will do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays. That’s obviously something we care about very much.”
Johnson said he also believed that “one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time” was raising universal credit. “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger, it is there, we have to deal with it,” he said.
“The debate is: how do you deal with it? 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.”
The leader of one Conservative-run local authority said any extra support for coronavirus had already been spent, and it was providing the meals from existing budgets.
Hancock took a notably more conciliatory tone in media interviews on Monday after a weekend of critical headlines for the government over the issue, and growing unrest among backbench Conservative MPs.
Hancock was also at pains to praise Rashford,whose campaigning has pushed the issue into public prominence.
“I agree very strongly with the purpose of the campaign run by Marcus Rashford,” Hancock told Sky News. “I think we’re all inspired by the way he’s led that campaign. And the purpose is that no child should go hungry, and that’s right.
“The question is how we then fulfil that, and so I think that there is a need during this pandemic, and at all times, for the country to come together and to support people and that’s what we’re doing putting that investment in.”
He added: “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 do exactly what you say, so that they can support people and make sure that everybody and every child gets the support that they need.”
Hancock argued that providing meals via councils was better than through central government, as councils “are close to their local community, and can therefore make the decisions to make sure that the people who really need it get the support”.
Izzi Seccombe, the Conservative leader of Warwickshire county council, said her share of the £63m fund had already been spent, and that provision for free lunches over half-term and Christmas was being funded by the council.
“It’s tight,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We are going to be funding it ourselves ourselves now, because there’s isn’t money there to support it. We will be trying to find it from other sources.”
Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “Short-term hardship funding provided by the Government this summer helped councils try and provide much-needed crisis support to all households - including those without children – struggling to afford food but also fuel and other essentials.
“Demand for support from households facing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 has outstripped this funding now and councils are having to find money from stretched budgets to top it up. This is increasingly difficult as they continue to face rising costs of providing services - such as adult social care, protecting children and housing rough sleepers - and income losses as a result of the pandemic.”
Speaking on Today, Hancock declined to say whether any more central government support would be made available. “Obviously, it’s not my area of policy to speak about. But what I’m saying is, our attitude and our purpose is to ensure everybody gets the support that they need, and no child should go hungry.”