Bizarre responses from ministers after Marcus Rashford's call for free summer meal vouchers rejected

Ministers have offered bizarre responses to calls for an extension to the free school meal voucher scheme through the summer holidays after the government rejected a request from footballer Marcus Rashford.

Manchester United striker Rashford has reignited a national debate with his emotional plea to extend the support package, and pressure has piled on the government to make a U-turn after a Department for Education spokesperson said it “will not run during the summer holidays”.

The 22-year-old England footballer penned an open letter this week asking the government to reverse its decision to curtail the scheme – for which nearly 1.3 million children are eligible – outside of school term time.

While public figures from across the UK, including Piers Morgan and Gary Linekar, have voiced their support for the campaign, responses from some members of the Cabinet have been odd.

Grant Shapps, in an interview with ITV News, suggested providing cancer treatment was as important as providing a child a meal though he quickly said his comment had been misinterpreted.

Political Correspondent Paul Brand asked: "Can you tell me something that's more important than making sure a child has a meal?"

To which the transport secretary responded: "Well, providing a cancer operation, there are many, many things which are incredibly important but I don't think it's an either/or.

"I think parents should be able to of course feed their children, which is why we have a furlough scheme to ensure people are still in work."

He added: "Let's just be clear, you asked me what's as important or more important i said there are other things that are incredibly important like cancer operations, but I then, quickly, went on to say there is no play-off between one or the other.

"Both of these things are important but it is the case that we are putting money into exactly these things, which is absolutely right."

Following a tweet in which Rashford called for the public to consider parents who've had "their water turned off during lockdown", the work and pensions secretary responded "water cannot be disconnected though".

Therese Coffey's comment was quickly denounced on Twitter, with many branding it "tone deaf".

Around 90 minutes later, she tweeted Rashford, saying she welcomes his "passion for supporting children" and said the government will "continue to support the economy" through lockdown.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner chipped in, revealing how her family couldn't "afford hot water when I was growing up".

She added: "I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced poverty and being unable to pay the bills but as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions I would have expected better from you.”

The England star followed up on his letter to MPs with a column in The Times newspaper on Tuesday, writing he was focusing "on a trophy that stands for something bigger than football".

Addressing the meal voucher issue and the broader subject of childhood poverty, Rashford wrote: “I don’t claim to have the education of an MP in Parliament, but I do have a social education."

“I am clued up on the difference a U-turn decision would make on the 1.3 million vulnerable children across the UK who are registered for free school meals because ten years ago I was one of them.”

Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson has said the prime minister will respond to Mr Rashford’s letter “as soon as he can”.

Meanwhile, the UK's largest food charity told ITV News more vulnerable children could go hungry this summer, as it warns charities will need 40% more food to meet demand.

Some 1.3 million children are eligible for free school meals during term-time, but most rely on charities for food in the summer holidays.

FareShare, which last year provided meals to over 43,000 vulnerable children, says coronavirus has made the situation worse - with many families being pushed into financial hardship and a further 1.4 million families applying for Universal Credit.

Rashford, who supports the charity, has helped raise £20 million toward the effort to feed more children.

It comes as a legal challenge on the government's decision not to continue food vouchers over the summer was launched by two charities.

Sustain and the Good Law Project have also written to England's Department of Education, calling the government's plans “inadequate” and warning hundreds of thousands of children will go hungry.

They argue the government's other programme - the Holiday Activities and Food scheme - will only reach around 50,000 children in 17 of the 343 local authorities in England, less than four percent of those eligible for free school meals.

The campaign received a further push on Monday night when Lineker told BBC Newsnight he urged the government to consider the struggles of impoverished families during the coronavirus crisis.

"It seems strange that we have to be in a position where we are desperately arguing to try to get young people fed, and stop them being hungry," he said.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party say they will today use an opposition day debate in Parliament to call on the government to continue to directly fund the provision of free school meals over the holidays.

Labour launched a Holidays Without Hunger campaign on Sunday.

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey will say: “Any government that is willing to let the poorest children in the country go hungry needs to take a long hard look at its priorities.

“Shamefully, children go hungry every year, but this summer will be especially difficult for many families as job losses and reduced incomes hit household budgets.

“It would be deeply callous of the government not to take this small step to ease the financial pressure on households and ensure children can eat during the summer holidays.”