The pandemic has screwed Britons’ understanding of government. There is a dwindling consensus on the role of the state, and last week this came to a nasty head. In government discussions around free school meals, the question of who should feed children during the school holidays sparked some thorny but predictable answers. It was about time for another serving of Eton mess.
Last week, the Labour motion to extend free school meals over the holidays was rejected by 322 MPs to 261 in favour. With 1.3 million children in England alone relying on free school meals, it’s difficult to not feel aggrieved by the news. Schools are the primary source of many essential aids for children—pastoral and peer support, education, nutrition—the list goes on. These resources require funding, and with money in scant supply, it seems that children are collateral in current budget battles.
The figurehead of the campaign to end holiday hunger, Marcus Rashford MBE, has amassed support from football fans to Coldplay. Rashford’s fervent campaigning in the summer months led to a U-turn in government plans, extending free school meals to cover the holidays. But this time the government won’t budge. Rashford has responded to the government’s latest decision that ‘the child food poverty has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced.’
Rashford’s movement has demonstrated the changing face of activism. With his gov.co.uk petition attracting nearly one million signatures, social media is playing an increasingly pivotal role in making gains for social causes. It takes a few clicks to support a cause; only 10,000 signatures for a petition to be responded to by the government, and just 100,000 signatures to be debated in parliament. Activism has never been more accessible.
But as the second wave materialises, we’re spotting sinister repetitions of previous government errors. Shaky promises, vague instructions and weird calls to work in cyber have left many in dire straits. If we know anything about the pandemic, it’s that its socioeconomic effects remain fiercely uneven, and picky budget decisions have made these inequalities much worse. The notorious Eat Out to Help Out scheme – which cost over £522 million – raises the grim point that the government wilfully subsidised everyone’s McDonalds for a month but won’t fund feeding a starving child.
Once again, charities have been forced to pick up the slack. Fortunately, lots of organisations and restaurants have pledged resources for families in need this half term. Responding to the media frenzy, many MPs are coming forward with dispassionate apologies. One MP, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has noted that the government has ‘misunderstood the mood of the country’ this time around. Whether feeding starving children is a ‘mood’ remains a moot point.
Johnson has released a statement claiming, ‘I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger’. Of course, he can: one can only imagine how distressing the queues for choccy pud were at boarding school. Perhaps Johnson’s empathy is spurred from common ground; he and his many children have also lived off the state for many years. Or maybe it’s because the public also subsidises MP meals? Awkward. Recently claiming that he feels underpaid on his six-figure salary, Johnson seems more out of touch than out of pocket. Books will be written on everything Boris Johnson did wrong in 2020. But is hexing Johnson a good idea? Every time a goofed report gives a half- truth, every time a tabloid presents misinformation, politics becomes more and more unaccommodating. The very emotive, online happenings of the previous week have shown the increasing difficulty of separating politics from identity. In no world is child hunger condonable, and this fact must not even be a political debate.
The government hasn’t done enough, but it hasn’t done nothing. £63 million in central grants have been given to local councils to spend on Covid-related necessities. It is understood that most local councils have spent the majority of this budget already, and more will be needed. Abdicating responsibility has been a costly blunder for the government, and whether any more grants will be given is anyone’s guess. Let’s hope for the best.
The government mustn’t fear political climbdowns, especially when the stakes are so high. If a country as rich as this one doesn’t help feed its children, the world is more morally bankrupt than we could have ever imagined.
Illustration: Eve Miller