UK pediatricians demand free meals for children as COVID-19 fuels poverty

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London: Pediatricians are urging the British government to reverse course and provide free meals for poor children during school holidays as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes more families into poverty.

Some 2,200 members of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health have written an open letter to Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying they were shocked by his “refusal” to back down on the issue. The House of Commons last week rejected legislation that would have provided free meals during all school holidays from October through the Easter break.

The doctors say some 4 million children live in poverty, and a third rely on free school meals. Many parents in Britain have lost their jobs or are working reduced hours during the pandemic, making it imperative to make it possible for poor children over the holidays get at least one nutritious meal a day, the doctors argue.

“Families who were previously managing are now struggling to make ends meet because of the impact of COVID-19,” the doctors wrote. “It is not good enough to send them into the holiday period hoping for the best, while knowing that many will simply go hungry.” Most schools in England begin a one-week holiday on Monday.

The doctors heaped praise on Marcus Rashford, a 22-year-old star soccer player for Manchester United who has used his celebrity to highlight the issue. Rashford’s campaign helped pressure Johnson’s government into providing free meals during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown earlier this year, and he has gathered more than 800,000 signatures on a petition to extend the programme.

Rashford has spoken movingly about depending on free school lunches as a child and was recently honoured by the queen for his dedication to the issue of child hunger.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who spoke for the government on Britain’s Sunday morning news programmes, claimed that lawmakers were taking a broader approach. He said the government has increased welfare benefits nationwide and has provided 63 million pounds ($82 million) to local communities to help people.