Boris Johnson insisted the Government would not allow children to go hungry amid mounting anger over his refusal to extend free school meals during the half-term break.
The Prime Minister promised to do “everything in our power” to tackle holiday hunger but defended his handling of the row.
Businesses, community groups and councils – including Tory-run administrations – have provided thousands of free meals for children as schools in large parts of England began their October half-term holiday.
A petition from footballer Marcus Rashford, who has been spearheading demands for free meals to be extended in England over the school holidays, has attracted almost 900,000 signatures, piling pressure on the Government to act.
Mr Johnson, speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading, said: “We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this Government – and you are not going to see that.”
Universal Credit had been increased by £20 a week while £63 million was announced in June by ministers to help local authorities feed vulnerable families – although officials expect that money to have largely been spent already.
Mr Johnson highlighted the money given to councils and said Universal Credit was “one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time”.
“I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger, it is there, we have to deal with it,” he said.
“The debate is how do you deal with it.”
But the Local Government Association said demand for support from households facing financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 has outstripped the funding and councils are having to find money from “stretched budgets” to top it up.
Downing Street hinted that Chancellor Rishi Sunak could announce extra support next month, pointing to comments from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that “the spending review sets out any future funding on behalf of the Government”.
Manchester United star Rashford has used his social media profile to highlight examples of businesses that have pledged to help with meals for local children.
“Those who have rallied around our communities, please continue to do so, you are the real pride of Britain,” he said.
Rashford’s club, in partnership with the Manchester United Foundation and the charity FareShare, will provide around 5,000 meals from the Old Trafford kitchens to children from local schools.
Those who have rallied around our communities, please continue to do so, you are the real pride of Britain.
Some of our children will be waking up anxious this Monday morning, let’s show them that there is never any shame in asking for help.
Thank you ♥️
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 26, 2020
Rashford’s campaign also received backing from Henry Dimbleby, the Leon chain co-founder and head of the Government-commissioned National Food Strategy.
— Henry Dimbleby (@HenryDimbleby) October 26, 2020
The Government’s social mobility watchdog also supported Rashford, saying 600,000 more children were in poverty than in 2012.
“We believe the Government should do all it can to start reversing that trend,” a Social Mobility Commission spokesman said.
“It should begin by ensuring that all children are properly fed.”
Tory-controlled councils offering support to hungry children include Hillingdon – which includes Mr Johnson’s constituency – Medway, Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole.
Warwickshire County Council’s Tory chief Izzi Seccombe told Today that money from Whitehall was “tight” and “we are going to be funding it ourselves now”.
“What we don’t want is people within Warwickshire feeling anxious, feeling worried and children going hungry during this half-term period,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer has sought to exploit the disarray in the Conservative ranks by confirming Labour will force another Commons vote on the issue if ministers do not relent in time for the Christmas holidays.
Tory former minister Tobias Ellwood told Today it would be “churlish” not to act, adding: “The pandemic has been tough, difficult winter ahead, let’s make sure we have a programme in place which all parties can agree with.”
Anger about the Government’s approach has threatened to boil over in some parts of the country.
Wolverhampton South West’s Conservative MP Stuart Anderson said his office had been attacked and his family had been threatened.
He claimed some fellow MPs were “afraid to go outside their house at the moment”.
Mr Anderson said: “I accept political arguments but you should not impact people’s safety by targeted harassment and vandalism.
“I can take name-calling, but when my family have to fear for their safety, that’s just disgusting.”