‘The government will have to think again’ over free school meals, Essex Tory MP says

PUBLISHED: 16:13 25 October 2020 | UPDATED: 20:50 25 October 2020

Footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign on extending free school meals over the holidays is gathering pace Picture: MIKE EGERTON

Footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign on extending free school meals over the holidays is gathering pace Picture: MIKE EGERTON

PA Wire/PA Images

A Conservative Essex MP has said the government has “misjudged the mood of the country” as pressure mounts on Boris Johnson to U-turn on free school meals.

MP Sir Bernard Jenkin says the government will have to MP Sir Bernard Jenkin says the government will have to "think again" over free school meals as pressure mounts Picture: JAKE FOXFORD

MPs from within the Conservative Party have added their voices to the increasing calls for a rethink after a vote last week saw a Labour bid to extend provision over the school holidays rejected.

Manchester United star Marcus Rashford’s campaign on the issue continues to gather pace, with his petition attracting more than 800,000 signatures so far.

MORE: Marcus Rashford tweets support for Suffolk pub amid free school meals row

More than 2,000 paediatricians have also signed a letter to the Prime Minister saying they are shocked by the government’s “refusal” to extend free school meals, and are backing Mr Rashford’s campaign.

Harwich and North Essex MP Sir Bernard Jenkin told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.

Bernard Jenkin (Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex) HOUSE OF COMMONSBernard Jenkin (Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex) HOUSE OF COMMONS

“The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this. I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.”

Labour has warned it will bring the issue back before Parliament if ministers do not change course in time for Christmas.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted: “Labour will force another vote on free school meals if the Government does not change course before the Christmas break. It’s not too late to do the right thing.”

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Mr Rashford has been publicising a string of councils and businesses across England who are stepping in to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic, with one of the latest being The Dun Cow in Bardwell, near Bury St Edmunds.

Tweeting details of the various community efforts to help children from low income backgrounds, the player said he is “so thankful and so very proud” for the “compassion and empathy” shown.

Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis praised the footballer for his “phenomenal” campaign, but insisted providing help through councils was “the right way to do it”.

Meanwhile, Sir Bernard, a senior Tory backbencher, has also criticised the leadership at the top of NHS Test and Trace amid deepening concern among ministers and MPs that the system is failing to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Sir Bernard said: “There is a spaghetti of command and control at the top, which is incapable of coherent analysis, assessment, planning and delivery.

MORE: Mapped: The Suffolk neighbourhoods with the highest and lowest Covid-19 infection rates

“The immediate priority is to fill the vacuum of leadership in Test and Trace, which is destroying cooperation and compliance.

“Government harnessed the military to regain control in the foot and mouth crisis; the Prime Minister should follow that example today, by installing a single leader, a three or four star military commander with a reputation for handling complexity under stress.”

But during his appearance on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, Sir Bernard insisted his comments about Lady Dido Harding had been meant “kindly” and that she was a “tremendous asset”.

The row comes after the Test and Trace system last week hit a record low with just 59.6% of the contacts of people who tested positive for the disease being successfully contacted and told to self-isolate.

Officials are looking at reducing the time people contacted by the Test and Trace system would be required to quarantine at home from 14 days to between 10 days and a week.

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