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Rashford calls for review of UK government free school meal policy

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Soccer player Marcus Rashford has stepped up pressure on Boris Johnson over free school meals in England with a call for an urgent review of the UK government’s policy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The England and Manchester United striker has joined with TV chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the actress Dame Emma Thompson to press ministers to develop a strategy which could help end child food poverty.

In their letter to the prime minister, backed by more than over 40 Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), charities and education leaders, they welcomed the “robustness” of his response to the “inadequate” meal parcels being provided by some private companies.

Jamie Oliver (left) and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are backing calls for a review (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

However, they said that after a series of problems – including over vouchers and the holiday provision of meals – that had arisen during the pandemic, it was the right time to “step back and review the policy in more depth”.

“This review would provide the government with the opportunity to future-proof its policy on school food, and to carefully consider how best to support low-income children and families in the aftermath of the pandemic,” they said.

“School food is essential in supporting the health and learning of our most disadvantaged children.

“Now, at a time when children have missed months of in-school learning and the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of our health, this is a vital next step.”

They said the review should look at the eligibility thresholds for free school meals to ensure disadvantaged children were not excluded.

It should also consider whether the current allowance was adequate and how schools could be supported to deliver the best quality meals.

Earlier, Home Secretary Priti Patel became the latest senior minister to condemn food provider, Chartwells, after images showing the poor-quality hampers were widely shared on social media.

“The company that were involved with that appalling display of food parcels should be ashamed of themselves quite frankly,” she told ITV’s This Morning.

“It was thoroughly unacceptable and it is right that the government are investigating them. I personally think some action should be taken against that company.”

She said that a national voucher scheme for free school meals will relaunch on Monday.

 

Chartwells has since announced it will add breakfast into its parcels for children eligible for free school meals after it acknowledged that there were local issues following school closures.

Robin Mills, the managing director of Compass Group which owns Chartwells, offered a personal apology and said they had a series of protocols to ensure the problems did not arise again.

“We are moving quickly to fix the problem and to deliver on our commitments,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the National Education Union (NEU) has criticised the government’s scheme to offer free food to struggling families via councils over February half-term in England.

The Department for Education guidance says schools do not need to provide parcels or vouchers during the break as families eligible for free school meals will be supported through the Government’s Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

But Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, warned of potential disruption to free schools meals provision during the break.

He said: “Suggesting that local councils will be able to recreate a brand new system of supplying free school meals for the week of half-term using the Covid Winter Grant Scheme is an unnecessary logistical nightmare, and the confusion and chaos this could cause will put millions of children at risk.

Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) resources board, said the Covid Winter Grant Scheme was “only a short-term fix” to enable local government to continue to help families facing hardship.

Councillor Watts called on the government to provide food vouchers to eligible families during February half-term “as it did last summer”.

A government spokeswoman said: “As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over February half-term via councils through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme launched last year.

“Our guidance is clear: schools provide free school meals for eligible pupils during term time. Beyond that, there is wider government support in place to support families and children via the billions of pounds in welfare support we’ve made available.”

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Joe Biden to reinstate Covid travel restrictions on travellers from UK

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President Joe Biden is set to reinstate Covid-19 travel restrictions on non-US travellers from Brazil, Ireland, the UK and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders.

White House officials said that South Africa would also be added to the restricted list on Monday because of concerns about a variant of the virus that has spread beyond that nation.

Mr Biden is reversing an order from Donald Trump in his final days in office that called for the relaxation of the travel restrictions as of Tuesday.

President Joe Biden is reversing Donald Trump’s order (Evan Vucci/AP)

The decision to reverse the order is not surprising but the addition of South Africa to the restricted travel list highlights the new administration’s concern about mutations in the virus.

The South Africa variant has not been discovered in the United States but another variant — originating in the UK — has been detected in several states.

Last week, Mr Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to require international air passengers to quarantine upon arrival in the US.

The order also requires that all US-bound passengers aged 2 and above get negative Covid-19 test results within three days before travelling.

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Portugal’s president wins second term after Covid-hit election

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Portugal’s president has been returned to office for a second term in an election held amid a devastating Covid-19 surge that has made the country the worst in the world for cases and deaths.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa captured around 61.5% of the vote. He had been widely expected to win.

In a stunning development, newly arrived right-wing populist Andre Ventura was in a close race for second place with Socialist candidate Ana Gomes, with both polling around 12%.

Such a showing for Mr Ventura would have been unthinkable until recently and will send a shudder through Portuguese politics.

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (Manuel de Almeida/ via AP)

Four other candidates ran for president.

One of the re-elected president’s first tasks will be to decide next month whether to approve a new law allowing euthanasia.

Parliament has passed the Bill but the head of state could try to block it or send it to the Constitutional Court for vetting.

The turnout was less than 40% — significantly lower than in recent elections and apparently confirming concerns that some people would stay away for fear of becoming infected with Covid-19.

Political leaders say that when the pandemic began to worsen there was no longer enough time to change the Portuguese constitution to allow a postponement.

Portugal has the world’s highest rates of new daily infections and deaths per 100,000 population, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, and its public health system is under huge strain.

Mr Rebelo de Sousa, 72, has long been viewed as the clear front-runner in the contest. He is an affable law professor and former television personality who as president has consistently had an approval rating of 60% or more.

To win, a candidate must capture more than 50% of the vote.

Right-wing populist presidential candidate Andre Ventura casts his ballot at a polling station in Lisbon (Armando Franca/AP)

Mr Rebelo de Sousa, a former leader of the centre-right Social Democratic Party, has worked closely with the centre-left minority Socialist government, supporting its pandemic efforts.

He also has endeared himself to the Portuguese with his easy-going style. Photographs taken by passers-by of him in public places, such as one last year of him standing in line at a supermarket wearing trainers and shorts, routinely go viral.

With the country in lockdown, the election campaign featured none of the usual flag-waving rallies but restrictions on movement were lifted for polling day.

Authorities increased the number of polling stations and allowed for early voting to reduce crowding on election day. In other precautions, voters were asked to bring their own pens and disinfectant to polling stations. Everyone voting wore a mask and kept a safe distance from each other.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa urged people to turn out for the ballot, saying that “unprecedented planning” had gone into ensuring that the vote could take place safely.

Portugal has 10.8 million registered voters, around 1.5 million of them living abroad.

Every Portuguese president since 1976, when universal suffrage was introduced following the departure of a dictatorship, has been returned for a second term. No woman or member of an ethnic minority has ever held the post.

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Joe Biden attends Mass for first time since taking office

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President Joe Biden has attended Mass for the first time since taking office, worshipping on Sunday at the church he frequented when he was vice president.

Mr Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington’s Georgetown neighbourhood, a few miles from the White House.

It is where the nation’s only other Catholic president, John F Kennedy, often went to Mass.

Mr Biden entered through the front entrance, where a Black Lives Matter banner was hanging on one side and a banner with a quote from Pope Francis was on the other: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, left, depart after attending mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The president, in a brief exchange with reporters, said the service was “lovely”.

He was accompanied to church by his son, Hunter, and two of his grandchildren, Finnegan and Maisy.

His motorcade made a brief stop on the way back to the White House for a takeway from Call Your Mother, a popular deli near the church.

The president remained in his armoured vehicle while his son picked up the order.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday that Mr Biden had not yet settled on a home church in the nation’s capital but said that she expected Mr Biden will continue to regularly attend services during his presidency.

President Joe Biden’s motorcade drives through the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington (Patrick Semansky/AP)

At home in Delaware, Mr Biden and his wife, Jill, were regulars at St Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville.

They alternated between the Saturday and Sunday services depending on their travel schedules throughout the 2020 campaign.

Catholic faithful have an obligation to attend Sunday services but church teaching allows for the commitment to be fulfilled by attending a service on the evening of the preceding day.

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