Coronavirus: Peter Weir to bid for money to extend free school meals

school mealsImage source, Reuters

Education Minister Peter Weir is to bid for money from Stormont's Covid-19 fund to extend free school meal payments over the summer.

Direct payments for the meals are scheduled to end on 30 June.

It was revealed earlier that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that has not extended the free school meals scheme over July and August.

The government in England is to provide a voucher programme, following a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.

Last month, Mr Weir had said his department could not afford to fund payments over summer.

However, on Tuesday a spokesperson for the NI Department of Education said the minister was "currently considering options to cover the July and August period".

They added that the bid to secure funding would "form part of a wider paper on summer activities to be considered by the executive when they meet on Thursday."

The families of almost 97,000 children have been receiving payments of £27 every fortnight per child, since schools were closed.

Stormont 'determined to find money'

The scheme was introduced on 26 March at an initial cost of £19m to run until the end of June.

It is estimated that the cost of extending it during July and August could be up to a further £12m, BBC News NI understands.

In May, Mr Weir told a Stormont committee that continuing the payments over summer was a decision that would require full executive approval.

Executive ministers said they hope that money can be identified and secured to allow the scheme to continue.

Earlier on Tuesday, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said he is "determined" to find the money necessary and hoped to bring proposals to the executive in the near future.

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First Minister Arlene Foster said she would propose to the executive that the scheme be extended over the summer, if "the necessary finances can be secured".

Speaking in the assembly, Mrs Foster said she was very sympathetic to the calls for the payments to continue, as she knew how important it had been to help families during the Covid-19 crisis so far.

All of the main Stormont parties have now said they want to see the scheme extended, following on from the decisions taken by governments in other parts of the UK.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was "glad" the British government had reversed its decision and called on Stormont ministers to "do the same".

Sinn Féin assembly member Karen Mullan said: "The links between educational underachievement and deprivation are well known and the evidence suggests that children returning to school can often be weeks or months intellectually behind classmates who have access to a more wholesome diet during the holidays."

Green Party Councillor Simon Lee, who is a teacher, said the payment represented a "lifeline for many families", calling for the scheme to be extended.

The Ulster Unionists have tabled a motion calling on the executive to introduce a scheme to tackle "holiday hunger".

"If a child needs state intervention in May and June, they will need it in July and August," said MLA Mike Nesbitt.

The Alliance Party said the payments must "not be lost".