WHEN the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, told Britain’s leading footballers in April that they should “make a contribution” in the fight against the Covid-19 virus, he was, doubtless, not expecting what happened this week. On Monday, the Manchester United and England striker, Marcus Rashford, launched a one-man campaign to get the Government to provide free food vouchers to 1.3 million vulnerable children over the summer holidays. Not much more than 24 hours later, Boris Johnson was forced into a massive U-turn.
The affair gave new meaning to the term player power. Right up until their humiliating climbdown, government ministers were insisting that it was not appropriate for hungry children to get free school meals out of term time. The idea was unprecedented, they said, ignoring the fact that so is a global pandemic and a national lockdown.
The 22-year-old footballer’s whirlwind campaign began with an open letter to all MPs, in which he revealed that, as a youngster, he was dependent upon free school meals — along with breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, and the kindness of the parents of his school friends — to avoid going hungry. He wrote: “My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”
As a top footballer, Mr Rashford has used his fame and fortune to put his money where other people’s mouths are. During lockdown, he has launched a campaign to help the homeless, learned sign language to work in a deaf school, and partnered with the charity FareShare to raise £20 million — of which the largest donation came from him personally — to provide three million meals for poorer schoolchildren. But he knew that that was not enough — hence the letter to MPs, asking them to set aside party differences and feed the hungry over the school holidays.
He did not give up when his plea was initially rejected. He wrote a piece for The Times on Tuesday revealing that a quarter of the 1.3 million children registered for free school meals have not received any help to date during the lockdown. Feeding this “forgotten generation” was a far bigger trophy than anything that could be won in football.
He then posted sections of the article on social media. Since he has 2.5 million followers on Twitter, 3.2 million on Facebook, and 8.2 million on Instagram, the leverage was enormous. Tory MPs became anxious that Mr Johnson was making another big error of judgement. Shortly before the Labour Party was due to raise the issue in the Commons, 10 Downing Street gave in to the man who wears the number-10 shirt for Manchester United.
The whole affair was a triumph for community solidarity, as was shown when fans from rival clubs applauded the Manchester United player. “When it comes to pulling the national team shirt on we put any rivalry aside — we are England and we stand united,” the young footballer declared. Let’s hope that the politicians have learned that lesson.