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by Lamiat Sabin
THE Tories have again announced that schools in England will not have to supply free lunches to children over February half-term, despite its humiliation on the same question last year.
The new government guidance for children learning at home during lockdown who qualify for free school meals comes after photos of meagre lunch provisions were shared on social media earlier this week.
It sparked uproar over apparent profiteering by private firms such as Chartwells commissioned to provide school meals.
The scandal has forced a government promise that it will revert to issuing supermarket vouchers of £15 per child per week for free school meals from Monday.
But newly published government guidance now states that “schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half-term.”
Coventry South Labour MP Zarah Sultana pointed out that the Tories were forced to U-turn on free school meals twice last year.
She added: “It’s scandalous how the Tories have to be brought kicking and screaming to do anything for working-class kids.”
The new guidance is similar to policies anounced last year that schools did not have to supply free school meals during October half-term and the Christmas break.
It led to councils, charities, and businesses such as restaurants stepping in to provide food to children of low-income families.
That followed an embarrassing climbdown over its refusal to extend the free school meals scheme over the summer break after PM Boris Johnson was pressed to by footballer and anti-childhood hunger activist Marcus Rashford.
But then Mr Johnson whipped his MPs to vote against plans to extend the scheme over half-term and Christmas, with meals to be instead funded by a Covid contigency fund for councils.
Now, the Department for Education (DfE) insists that food during February half-term will be adequately supplied through the same £170 million Covid Winter Grant fund set up in early December.
The fund aims to support those most in need across England with costs of food, energy, water bills and other essentials.
National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said the plan to offer food through the grant scheme was a “logistical nightmare” that would put “millions of pupils” at risk of hunger.
He said: “It is simply astonishing that the government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic.
“After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again.
“This week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Education Secretary 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.”
Labour shadow minister for children and early years Tulip Siddiq said the “absolutely shocking” guidance was “sadly no longer surprising.”
She suggested that the only way to get Conservative ministers to change their minds on the issue is to “keep shaming” them.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Every time I think this rotten government can’t stoop any lower they manage to outdo themselves.”
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