Matt Hancock has said the government does not need to extend free school meals beyond term times in England because local councils have been funded to support disadvantaged children instead.
However, this has been disputed by councils, with the leader of one Conservative-run local authority saying any extra support for coronavirus had already been spent, and it was providing the meals from existing budgets.
The UK health secretary took a notably more conciliatory tone in media interviews on Monday after a weekend of critical headlines for the government over the issue, and growing unrest among backbench Conservative MPs.
But despite some reports predicting a partial climbdown over the refusal to fund free school meals for poorer families at half-term and during the Christmas holidays, Hancock defended the government’s stance, saying it had already provided “a huge amount of extra investment”.
Hancock was at pains to praise Marcus Rashford, the England and Manchester United footballer whose campaigning has pushed the issue into public prominence. He said there had been “communication” between Boris Johnson and Rashford – a claim the player later expressed bemusement about in a tweet.
“I agree very strongly with the purpose of the campaign run by Marcus Rashford,” Hancock told Sky News. “I think we’re all inspired by the way he’s led that campaign. And the purpose is that no child should go hungry, and that’s right.
“The question is how we then fulfil that, and so I think that there is a need during this pandemic, and at all times, for the country to come together and to support people and that’s what we’re doing putting that investment in.”
While on Friday a Downing Street spokesman declined to praise private firms that had, with some councils, stepped in to provide holiday lunches, Hancock said it was “absolutely wonderful that companies have come forward and are playing their part”.
He added: “I also think that it’s brilliant that the councils are coming forward, having been funded by central government – £63m has gone to councils so that they can do exactly what you say, so that they can support people and make sure that everybody and every child gets the support that they need.”
Hancock argued that providing meals via councils was better than through central government, as councils “are close to their local community, and can therefore make the decisions to make sure that the people who really need it get the support”.
The inference that English councils are expected to use their share of the £63m Covid hardship fund to fill the gap for free school meals prompted surprise in some local authorities. The sum is also intended to help disadvantaged people with needs such as heating. Councils say they have faced a cumulative £8bn in costs and lost income due to coronavirus, which has not been fully met by central government.
Izzi Seccombe, the Conservative leader of Warwickshire county council, said her share of the £63m fund had already been spent, and that provision for free lunches over half-term and Christmas was being funded by the council.
“It’s tight,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We are going to be funding it ourselves ourselves now, because there’s isn’t money there to support it. We will be trying to find it from other sources.”
A Local Government Association spokesman said: “As many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come it is vital that the government puts local welfare funding on a long-term, sustainable footing.
“The ability of councils to provide preventative support to all households who need it is vital if they are to ensure households can be financially secure.”
Speaking on Today, Hancock declined to say whether any more central government support would be made available. “Obviously, it’s not my area of policy to speak about. But what I’m saying is, our attitude and our purpose is to ensure everybody gets the support that they need, and no child should go hungry.”
Speaking to BBC One’s Breakfast programme, Hancock said he understood the prime minister had been in touch with Rashford, saying: “There has been communication between the two, as far as I understand it.”
Asked if that meant Johnson had written to Rashford, Hancock said: “I’m not in charge of the prime minister’s correspondence – if there hasn’t been, I’m sure that that will be followed up.”
But Rashford was baffled by Hancock’s statement that he and the prime minister had been in touch, tweeting: “Hmm, unless he’s referring to the call we had following the U-turn in June?”