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Kids on free school meals could go hungry if schools close due to coronavirus, charities warn

THE government faced calls today to make cash available to low-income families so their children can be fed if schools close during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the threat of school closures looms, eighteen charities and academics wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick seeking clarification on measures to ensure children eligible for free school meals do not go hungry.

The move comes after PM Boris Johnson announced after a Cobra meeting on Thursday that schools would not yet close, adding that shutting them down would do “more harm than good.”

Ireland joined many other European countries today and shut down its schools and colleges for a fortnight.

About 1.5 million children eligible for free school meals could be affected if schools in Britain eventually close.

The charities said that direct cash transfers were “by far the most effective tool in order to aid families to weather the storm” and would be preferable over vouchers for food or funding for lunch clubs, which would be inconvenient for families who are self-isolating or in quarantine and may also face closure.

They also pointed out that many of the volunteers in emergency food- aid provision are over 60 and are more vulnerable to the virus.

Signatories of the letter include Church Action on Poverty, the Independent Food Aid Network and academics from several universities.

Food charity Sustain chief executive Kath Dalmeny, a signatory, said: “If schools shut to prevent the spread of coronavirus, their families will struggle to be able to afford to feed their children at home, and will not be able to stockpile food supplies if they are self-isolating.

“Food banks are already at more than full stretch so cannot be expected to meet increased need.

“The government must immediately make it clear how it will help the poorest families by making sufficient emergency funds readily available for people to be able to buy food if the impacts of coronavirus disrupt food supplies and increase prices.”

Independent Food Aid Network co-ordinator Sabine Goodwin said that there were already reports of fewer donations being made to food banks. Consumers panic-buying items with a long shelf life has led to a shortage in supermarkets.

She added: “This crisis shines a spotlight on the fragility of the incredible organisations supporting those on low or no income and above all on the need for long-term systemic change.”

National Education Union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted told the Star that the coronavirus had further exposed the problem of food insecurity and child poverty that successive Tory governments had “long ignored.”

She said: “For many children and young people the only decent meal they get a day is at school. For some it will be the only one.

“The repercussions and preparation by government for the coronavirus need to take this into account in whatever actions they implement to contain the virus.”

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