The relief was shortlived. Barely a month ago, campaigners were cheering the success of a campaign spearheaded by the Manchester United and England footballer, Marcus Rashford. Their aim was to force the government to provide meal vouchers for 1.3 million children in the school summer holidays, and they won: a new £120m fund was created to contribute £15 per eligible child, per week. But a fresh cause for concern did not take long to arrive: data showing that hospital admissions for children in England suffering from malnutrition have doubled since last year, to 2,500 under-16s in six months.
What would be extremely worrying at any time is particularly so at the moment. Rises in the prices of some basic foods and other essentials have been recorded over recent months. Much steeper increases are predicted by retailers in the event of a no-deal Brexit: the price of cheddar cheese imported from Ireland, for example, could rise by 57%. Combined with the effect of job losses as the furlough scheme winds down, the crisis in the childcare sector and lifting of the eviction freeze, there is every chance that more families could find their finances stretched beyond their limits in the months ahead.
Children are not, of course, the only people who are entitled to nourishment. No one should go hungry in the UK, which is among the world’s 10 largest economies. Poor nutrition in people of all ages is linked to coronary heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer as well as poor mental health. The start of this year brought highly distressing reports of the death from starvation of a 57-year-old man, Errol Graham, after his benefits were cut off.
But the reliance of children on adults, and the fact that they need food in order to grow, makes reports of such widespread unmet need in young people deeply shocking. Malnutrition in childhood is associated with developmental delay and long-term emotional damage – in addition to the immediate physical discomfort, distress and shame which result from not having enough to eat. It can also be a factor in children being removed from their families. Since parents and grandparents are well known to skip meals (or shrink helpings) in order to give younger family members extra, an increase in poorly fed children is a strong indication that whole households are in a desperate state.
So far, the government has resisted calls by MPs to change a rule that leaves a million migrant workers with “no recourse to public funds”, even if they have UK-born children or have lost their source of income due to the pandemic. This decision has placed unjustified pressure on voluntary-sector organisations such as food banks, which should never be in the position of supplying all a family’s needs. Similarly, the choice not to increase the legacy benefits that hundreds of thousands of disabled claimants rely on, because they have not yet been switched to universal credit, is arbitrary and wrong. This has left them worse off than UC claimants, who were granted a £20 weekly rise, and has exacerbated their vulnerability to the shocks of recent months. A third group facing intense pressure are private tenants whose benefits do not cover their rent. To avoid further suffering, the local housing allowance should be raised.
Ministers belatedly made the right call about meal vouchers over the summer. Now they must be pushed to dig deeper. The prospect of thousands more malnourished children being admitted to hospital over the autumn and winter should be impossible to stomach.