London (AFP) - Britain's government on Tuesday bowed to demands by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to change its policy on free school meals for the poorest children, amid growing concerns about the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on low-income families.
The England international drew on his own experience of growing up in poverty to lead an impassioned campaign for the programme to be extended through the summer holidays.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government had initially resisted making the change, which would see 1.3 million children in England receive vouchers for an extra six weeks.
But as the story dominated the headlines and opposition MPs and members of his own Conservative party backed Rashford, Johnson gave in.
"Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer," his spokesman said.
"To reflect this we will be providing a Covid summer food fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period."
Rashford, 22, won widespread praise from politicians, charities and education leaders for his campaign. He said he was proud to have helped give a voice to "vulnerable parents".
"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," he added.
The striker had written to Johnson and MPs and on Tuesday wrote in The Times newspaper that he understood personally how much free school meals mattered to children receiving them.
"Ten years ago, I was one of them. I know what it feels like to be hungry," he wrote.
Ahead of a parliamentary debate called by the main opposition Labour party, he urged MPs to put aside their political differences and back his campaign.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also announced Tuesday that she would extend the meals scheme to the summer holidays in Scotland, following a move already made by the devolved government in Wales.
- Educational poverty -
Johnson had highlighted how much his government has already done to help people hit by nationwide stay-at-home orders imposed in March to stem the spread of COVID-19.
When schools were shut, pupils eligible for free meals were offered vouchers instead, and the government has boosted welfare payments and provided targeted funds for the most vulnerable.
It has also paid the salaries of 9.1 million people in its furlough scheme as of June 14, although new figures show a surge in claims for out-of-work benefits to 2.8 million people in the three months to May.
With a deep recession looming however, fears are growing for how many people will cope when the furlough scheme ends in October.
Several Conservative MPs had called on Johnson to "do the right thing" and extend the school meal programme.
Commentators also questioned why the prime minister was picking such a fight when he was already on the back foot over his response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 41,000 lives.
"@MarcusRashford is right. Public know it. Politicians know it," tweeted Conservative MP Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Commons education committee.
"He's lived food hunger and helps food charities," he said, referring to Rashford's help in raising £20 million ($25 million) for FareShare, a charity that fights hunger and food waste.
Halfon had previously warned about "an epidemic of educational poverty" after the government conceded most children would not return to school until September.
Earlier, Labour's education spokeswoman, Rebecca Long-Bailey, said Rashford was "one of the best of us", accusing the government of being "callous".
Downing Street has said the cost of the scheme will come to £120 million in additional spending.
A new study from UCL's Institute for Education found just 19 percent of children were spending more than four hours a day on school work, falling to 11 percent for those on free school meals.